Did you know that a doomed mission of Laika, the first dog in space, was launched on the 3rd of November 1957? Yes, the mission was considered a trial to see the safety of human space travel. What makes it a sad, sad story is that it was a guaranteed suicide mission as the past technology has yet to advance in providing this brave canine with a return trip. It was previously believed that Laika survived for at least four days, but in actuality, the first dog in space died within hours.
The survival of the first men and women to travel in space was largely determined by the sacrifices of other animals in the early days of aerospace engineering. Before the advancement of rocket science, they used animals as test subjects to investigate the safety and/or feasibility of surviving in space. Other important factors, such as the effects of weightlessness, were also investigated.
Tests were not limited to dogs, but it extends to all kinds of animals including wasps, beetles, bees, spiders, rabbits, guinea pigs, cockroaches, scorpions, and many more. This proves that animals have played a very important role in the understanding of the microgravity impact on many biological functions.
The first animal astronauts
Before Laika, the first animals reaching space were fruit flies. On the 20th of February 1974, fruit flies were launched on German V-2 rockets by the United States. The aim was to study the effects of radiation exposure at high altitudes.
First monkey in space
The first primate sent to space was a rhesus monkey named Albert II. The first Albert’s mission was considered unsuccessful, whilst on the 14th of June 1949, Albert the second was able to reach a distance of 83 miles. Sad to say, Albert II did not survive the impact upon re-entering Earth.
The first living creature to orbit Earth
Unfortunately, the said first living creature to orbit Earth did not survive long enough as what the Soviet officials claimed.
The pioneering bark
Laika, a three-year-old female dog, was one of the dogs from the streets of Moscow captured by Soviet scientists. They gathered street dogs for a space mission to launch into orbit. Self-reliance and toughness were two qualities that made street dogs a qualified choice for the mission, according to the scientist. They were particularly keen on choosing female dogs over males as there is no need for them to lift one of their legs when peeing.
In training, the dogs were provided with food in jelly form in preparation for the space mission. To get acclimated with the limited space of Sputnik 2, they were kept in smaller cages for a period of fifteen to twenty days.
For the purpose of publicity, selected dogs had to be photogenic and were even named with notable names. Laika means ‘bark’ in Russian. With over six candidates, Laika was picked as the final option due to her docile nature and somehow quizzical expression.
The pioneering canine spaceflight
On the 3rd of November 1957, Sputnik 2, with Laika on board, was launched into space. However, shortly after the launch, the Soviets admitted that Laika was not intended to return alive due to the limited knowledge of space travel back then. With this statement, the public were outraged, especially the Brits. ‘THE DOG WILL DIE, WE CAN’T SAVE IT,’ wailed London’s mass-minded Daily Mirror. Instead of celebrating, the Soviets were bound for damage control.
In an interview from Time, a Soviet official claims, ‘The Russians love dogs. This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity.’
The tragic one-way trip
The medical sensors placed on Laika detected that her pulse rate increased three times the normal rate during the launch. However, as it reached weightlessness, her pulse rate decreased. After five to seven hours, there were no life signs received from Laika. At the fourth orbit, it became clear that Laika had passed away from stress and overheating. They expected Laika to survive up to eight to ten days, but because of overheating and dehydration, the canine did not last after a few hours.
On the 14th of April 1958 and after circumnavigating the Earth 2,570 times, the satellite burnt up in the atmosphere as it attempted to re-enter the atmosphere.
Laika is still loved and remembered
‘Laika was quiet and charming,’ wrote Doctor Vladimir Yazdovsky in a Soviet space medicine book. One of the Soviet scientists brought Laika home to play with children before the trip.
Before she was internationally recognised as Laika, the dog’s initial name was Kudryavka or Little Curly. She was described as a young and charming dog with a mix of Siberian husky. As a pun on Sputnik, the media dubbed her as Muttnik.
In Moscow, Laika was greatly honoured with a monument in 2008. Despite her tragic fate, Laika’s sacrifice contributed to the knowledge of the tolerance of living organisms during weightlessness. With that said, Laika will always be remembered in films, songs, and postage stamps.
More Soviet space dogs
Upon the United States’ experiments with monkeys, the Soviet Union, on the other hand, focused experiments with dogs. Tsygan and Dezik were put into the R-1 and IIIA-1 reaching space on the 22nd of July 1951 without orbiting. They were considered as the first mammals that were successfully recovered from a spaceflight.
The Soviet’s preference for performing tests on dogs over apes is not clear. However, it might have to do with Ivan Pavlov’s work on dog physiology. Aside from that, wandering dogs were abundant in the streets of USSR.
Belka and Strelka
Three years after Laika’s mission, two dogs, Belka (Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow), were successfully sent to orbit along with other animals including mice, rats, and a rabbit, and some plants. They were put into space by Korabl-Sputnik-1 or otherwise recognised as Sputnik 5. They were considered as the first living animals recovered alive from an orbital flight.
Currently, the bodies of Strelka and Belka were preserved at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow.
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