3 November 1957 - Laika Becomes the First Animal Launched In Earth Orbit

On the morning of 3 November 1957, Sputnik 2 launches from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

On board: Laika, a stray dog from the streets of Moscow, the first animal in orbit.


The Rocket

Rather than a meticulously planned mission, the Sputnik 2 launch was announced by Soviet leader Khrushchev, about a month in advance. Right after the launch of the Sputnik 1, the first-ever satellite.

This announcement was much to the surprise of Sergei Korolev, one of the key members of the Soviet space program.

He had been working on a new rocket design. But with with only a month to launch, all existing plans were scrapped and a new rocket was designed and built from scratch.

sputnik 2 satellite

Sputnik 2, with at the bottom the cabin where Laika was place

While the Soviet engineers were frantically building the rocket, recruitment for its passengers started.

The Dogs

Three dogs were trained for the mission. All three  were stray dogs, Soviet scientists assumed that their survival skills in conditions of extreme cold and hunger would make them stronger test candidates.

Up until that point, animals had only gone into sub orbital space.

So main goal of the mission was propaganda. A secondary research goal was to see the effect of extended periods of weightlessness on living beings. 

For that Laika was operated on and outfitted with cables with transmitters to the sensors that would measure the breathing, pulse, and blood pressure of the animal.

To pepare her for the tiny cabin of the Sputnik 2, she was kept in progressively smaller cages for periods up to 20 days.

The close confinement caused her a lot of stress, leading her to stop urinating or defecating, becoming restless and causing her general well-being to deteriorate.

Further slight preparation included putting Laika through centrifuges to simulated the acceleration and machines that simulated the noises from the launch. This caused her pulse to double and blood pressure to rise dramatically.

Nutrition wise she was put on a special high energy gel diet, the exact food she would be fed during the mission.

Before the launch, one of the Scientists took Laika home to play with his children. The scientist, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky later wrote:

"Laika was quiet and charming...I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."

Because of the haphazard rocket design, Laika had to be placed in the capsule of the satellite three days before the launch.

At the time of the year it gets really cold in Baikonur, so a special hose was connected to a heater to keep her warm.

One of the technicians that was there had this to say: 

"After placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight."

The Flight

After take-off the heart rate sensors indicate a pulse of 240 beats per/ minute. A couple of minutes before that was only 103 beats/min.

The launch was successful, but some of thermal insulation that protected the cabin tore loose, raising the cabin temperature to 40 °C (104 °F).

After about 3 hours of weigtlessness, Laika's hear trate hard dropped back to 102 bpm. This was 3x longer then it had taken during preparations. 

This indicated that she was under serious stress. But she was still eating.

Five to seven hours into the flight, no more signs of live were received from the spacecraft.

Her Death

In  the years that followed, the Soviets came up with all kinds of explanations around the actual cause of death.

Many years later it become public that Laika had died by the fourth Earth orbit as a result from overheating.

Sputnik 2 stayed in orbit four about 5 months. On 14 April 1958, after 2570 orbits, the Sputnik 2 with Laika's remains, de-orbited and entered Earth atmosphere and burned up.

The Aftermath

Laika's death sparked controversy about the mistreatment of animals and animals testing in these kinds of space experiments.

Speaking of Laika in 1989, on e of her trainers, Gazenko said:

Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it ... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

One of Laika's trainers Gazenko , with 3 other Soviet space dogs

He also said that a bond emerged between him and the dog.

While the engineers were racing against the clock to get the rocket, satellite and cabin built, Gazenko argued to have a window installed in the cabin. 

A window for the dog whose monitored demise had been this man’s objective in all the interactions that had bonded her to him with the eager devotion of every well-trained working canine.

This launch also had a lot of shock value. The launch of the Sputnik 1 took the US by surprise, another launch, only a month later with an even heavier payload (250 pounds vs 40 pounds) really shook the USA government.


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