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The Story of Laika


The space race began on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first vehicle to orbit the earth, the satellite Sputnik 1. Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted a spectacular achievement to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and, one month later Soviet space scientists duly delivered when they launched Sputnik 2 with the first living creature to travel in space on board, a dog named Laika.

Laika being prepared for the flight of Sputnik 2.
Laika, which means "barker" in Russian, was a stray from the streets of Moscow. She had been rounded up with dozens of other stray dogs and kept at the space research centre in Moscow. The dogs underwent a variety of tests and training to assess their suitability for the demands of space flight. These included weeks of confinement in small cages to accustom the dogs to the limited space available within the capsule, and being harnessed inside a flight simulator while being subjected to the noise, vibration and G-forces that would be experienced during the launch period and the flight. Laika was eventually selected as the most suitable candidate, with a dog called Albina as her understudy. The general assessment system devised for the dogs at that time was later used for the cosmonauts who were to follow Laika into space.

Laika is fitted with the harness used
to secure her within the space capsule.
On the 3 November 1957, Sputnik 2 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan and Laika, the mongrel dog from the streets of Moscow, became the planet earth's first space traveller. As this was the cold war period, the event was considered a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. The flight of Laika made headline news across the World and the American press nicknamed her Muttnik. Orbiting 1000 miles above the earth, Laika's flight captured the imagination of people everywhere. From inside the capsule of Sputnik 2, reports about her condition were transmitted back to earth, including her blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. The capsule's environmental conditions including temperature and internal pressure were also closely monitored.

Because of the demands on the Soviet space scientists to deliver results quickly, no provision was made for Sputnik 2 to return to earth. Shortly after the launch had taken place, the Soviet space agency announced that Laika would not be brought back and would die in space. The announcement caused widespread outrage around the World.



LAIKA'S FINAL HOURS
There has always been uncertainty about precisely how and when Laika died on board Sputnik 2. Various official versions have conflicted with each other; one version stated that Laika was put to sleep peacefully after four days in orbit by releasing a gas into the capsule, another version claimed the same fate for her after seven days and a third said that Laika died after ten days when the batteries powering her life support systems gave out. However, new evidence provided in October 2002 at the World Space Congress held in Houston, Texas by Dr. Dmitry Malashenkov of Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems confirmed that Laika almost certainly died during the first day of the flight. Contrary to the official Soviet flight information provided at the time, it seems certain now that Laika died only hours into the flight due to stress and overheating problems in the space capsule.

According to Dr. Malashenkov, the sensors recording Laika's vital lifesigns showed that her pulse rate increased dramatically by a factor of three during the launch period and was very slow in decreasing after the launch, an indication of the extreme stress she was suffering. He confirmed that the information transmitted from Sputnik 2 showed that the temperature and humidity inside the capsule steadily increased after the launch had taken place. Five hours into the flight, Laika's vital lifesigns began to fail. After seven hours, somewhere during the fourth orbit, no further lifesigns were received from Laika. Sputnik 2 continued to orbit for 2,570 times before it re-entered the earth's atmosphere and burned up on 14 April 1958.

Stamps were issued in different countries
to commemorate Laika's flight.

A variety of other animals including monkeys, rats and mice followed Laika into space as part of the U.S. and Soviet space programmes. The Soviet scientists used a further 13 dogs for the Sputnik programme, five of which died during missions. After Laika, they never again sent a dog into space without a recovery system in place.

In 1997, a monument to the Soviet Union's space heroes was erected at Star City, the cosmonaut training centre on the outskirts of Moscow. In one section of the monument peering out from behind the cosmonauts is a representation of Laika, the little stray dog from the streets of Moscow.



Laika represented for some the pioneering spirit
which took us "where no man had gone before."
For others, she symbolised the ruthless exploitation of
innocent creatures for dubious benefits.
Perhaps this is best summed up in the words
of Oleg Gazenko, a leading member of the Soviet Space Programme's scientific team.
Speaking at a Moscow news conference in 1998, he said:

"The more time passes,
the more I'm sorry about it...
We did not learn enough from this mission
to justify the death of the dog."