Laika, the space dog

A Rumanian postage stamp commemorates the test flight of a Soviet satellite and the sacrifice of the dog Laika.

Neozoon, Wikimedia Commons

On April 11, 2008, a monument of Laika, the first dog in space, was unveiled by Russian officials at the Moscow military research facility, where she was prepared for her flight into orbit. In the statue, the half-husky, half-terrier stray Mongrel female dog was standing on top of a rocket.

Star City, Russia, has another statue and plaque of the first space dog, with her ears erect in the cosmos. The Monument to the Conquers of Space in Moscow also includes a likeness of Laika. She has been immortalized long after her short life ended in 1957.

Laika was a found 3-year-old stray dog roaming the streets of Moscow when she arrived at the military research facility. She weighed 11 pounds. Soviet scientists agreed she was the perfect specimen for their space travel mission. They assumed dogs like Laika had already learned to endure harsh conditions of extreme cold and hunger.

Her true pedigree was actually unknown. It’s generally accepted that she may have been part husky, part terrier. However, she could’ve have been part Samoyed terrier, or another Nordic breed. Who really knows?

Vladimir Yazdovsky was the scientist in charge of the test rocket dogs. He and another scientist, Oleg Gazenko, were responsible for training Laika and two other dogs, Albina and Mushka, for the outer space mission. Previously, the Soviet Union and United States had sent test animals only on sub-orbital flights.

Preparing the three dogs for the confined cabin of Sputnik 2, the scientists kept the animals in smaller cages. These confined quarter caused the dogs to stop urinating and defecating. They became extremely restless and began to deteriorate. Laxatives didn’t improve the dogs’ condition. Researchers, however, found long periods of training proved effective for the dogs.

And then the dogs were placed in centrifuge that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch and were placed in machines that simulated the spacecraft’s noises. Of course, this caused their pulses to double and their blood pressure to increase. Laika, Albina, and Mushka were also now trained to eat a special high-nutrition gel that would provide them the necessary sustenance needed for the test animals.

A choice needed to be made on which dog would go up in the rocket. Finally, Yazdovsky made a decision on the designated roles of the dogs. Laika would be the flight dog. Her back-up was Albina, who had already flown twice on a high-attitude rocket. And, of course, Mushka, the third dog, would be used as the “control dog.” She was to remain on the ground to be used to test instrumentation and life support.

Before the launch, Vladimir Yazdovsky took Laika home to play with his children. He wanted to do something nice for the dog, because he knew she would die inside the rocket while up in space.

When Laika returned to Baikonur Cosmodrome, she, along with the two other dogs, was given surgery by Yazdovsky and Gazenko. Each of the dogs was routed with cables from the transmitter to the sensor that monitored the breathing, pulse, and blood pressure.

On Oct. 31, three days before the mission, Laika was inside the capsule of the satellite. Two assistants were assigned to keep watch over the test dog. Just prior to liftoff on Nov. 3, 1957, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Laika’s fur was sponged in a weak alcohol solution and carefully groomed for her mission. Then, iodine was painted on where sensors would be placed to monitor bodily function.

Before closing the hatch, the two technician each kissed Laika on her little wet nose and wished her a bon voyage. They also knew she wouldn’t survive the flight. Sputnik 2 wasn’t designed to be retrievable after the mission was completed.

For many decades, the Soviet Union gave conflicting reports on what became of Laika. Some Russian officials said she died from asphyxia when the battery failed. Others sources stated she had been euthanized through her last meal. In 1999, Russian sources revealed that the Laika died when the cabin overheated.

In his later published accounts of the Soviet Union space mission, Yazdovsky wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.” Her life was forfeited for the exploration of space.

Carl White lives in Napa.