by Sean Lim
You have probably heard of Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space. Or Neil Armstrong – the first man on the Moon. But their triumphs may not have been possible were it not for another, less celebrated precedent. For all the heroes borne out of the Space Race, one heroine’s sacrifice for her country stands out. This is the story of Laika, the Canine Cosmonaut.
During the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia, the Sputnik missions came to be the epitome of Soviet space technology. Sputnik 1 became the first artificial object to orbit the Earth in October 1957, with Sputnik 2 targeted to launch just a month later. The principle was the same – Sputnik 2 would escape Earth’s gravity and be launched into orbit. Except this time, it would carry a living payload.
Search For a Living Candidate
The intensive search began for a test subject that would model a human space traveller. Launching a human into orbit involves putting him/her under rather intense conditions (~5g). Apart from the forces of the initial launch, the radiation and near 0g environment of outer space posed further questions to the viability of human space flight.
It turned out that the ideal candidates could be found just around the corner – literally. Street dogs were abundant in Moscow and picking up a few wouldn’t cause too much public concern. An added bonus was that living on the cold and unforgiving streets of Moscow would have prepared these dogs for the rigours of space flight. Many female strays were brought into the lab and subjected to tests to determine their worthiness in space.
These tests placed the animals under extreme conditions, such as simulating the forces of launch using a centrifuge and exposing them to loud noises identical to that of rocket boosters. In addition, the dogs were made to sleep in smaller and smaller cages, as the cabin on Sputnik 2 was designed to be as compact as possible. At the end of these trials, one candidate was selected for her calm and docile nature; Laika was to become a Soviet Space Dog.
Sputnik 2 – Liftoff
On 3rd November 1957, Sputnik 2 was successfully launched with Laika on board. Onboard systems showed Laika experiencing stress from the launch, with her heart rate tripling and breath rate quadrupling1. Her vitals returned to normal a few hours after reaching orbit. As Laika got used to the weightlessness of space; she even began to eat the food stowed on board. But things quickly took a turn for the worse.
During the launch sequence, an error meant there was a failure to the thermal control systems. This meant that the environment inside the cockpit quickly rose to unbearable temperatures. Just a few hours into the flight, there no longer was any signs of life from the cockpit systems. Laika had died after just four orbits, from overheating.
2500 orbits of Earth and over 5 months later, Laika’s remains and Sputnik 2 burned up as it re-entered the atmosphere.
Laika was sent into space for the sole purpose of testing if humans would survive in space, and in that regard, the mission was a success. Although they provided Laika with enough food, oxygen and air to last a week, Russian scientists knew that this would be a one-way trip; de-orbiting technology was still too primitive to implement in time for Sputnik 2.
Despite knowledge of this, there was essentially no real opposition to the matter, largely due to the ongoing Space Race. To compete against the United States meant having projects on very tight schedules; only 32 days separated the launch of Sputnik 1 and 2.
After the launch, Laika was immortalized in the form of a statue at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Soon after, other similar statues began to pop up all over Russia and in neighbouring countries. Laika has since appeared on stamps, envelopes, coins and other memorabilia.
Laika’s sacrifice paved the way for future space travel, but it was not the last time dogs were used by Soviet space program. In fact, 71 dogs were used in total, resulting in the death of 17. But future missions always included equipment for crew survival and return; Laika was doomed the moment she was picked from the streets of Moscow.