It was a time when most of us weren’t even born. It was also the time when animals were treated like animals and there was no PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to look after their well-being. The Soviet Union of that era took the initiative to send dogs into space as part of its space program.
The first dog to be trained for space travel was Laika, a small two-year-old stray mutt. She was shot into space without a return ticket on November 5, 1957. She travelled in a custom-made housing of the research satellite Sputnik II. The aim was to determine the feasibility of living beings to endure spaceflights.
Why a female stray mutt and not a pet dog?
According to space researchers of those times, a street dog was more adaptable to harsh conditions and with its small size was a better fit in the cramped space capsule. And the dog wouldn’t have to lift up her leg to urinate, which was difficult in a cramped capsule!
That Laika became the first dog to go into space and orbit the Earth is now considered a milestone in the advancement of space exploration. However, since there was no technology available to safely bring back the capsule, it was made to burn up on reentry into the atmosphere, thereby consigning Laika to a gory end.
It was not that the space scientists of those times were heartless or insensitive towards these creatures. In Laika’s case, the scientists had developed close bonds with her, while training her for space. The doctor of the space team described her as quite charming and he even took her to play with his kids before the launch. According to him, “I wanted to do something nice for her: she had so little time left to live.” Even AdilyaKotovskaya, the team’s biologist uttered, “Please forgive us” to her before the launch.
To make her death more humane, she was provided special food and the programmers had also made arrangements to euthanize her with a lethal injection. But, what took her life was the heat of the reentry and stress. No sign of life was detected inside the capsule after seven hours into the flight.
Laika’s lifeless body remained in the metallic ‘coffin’ for six months and orbited the Earth for another 2,570 times, before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. A small monument exists in Moscow to commemorate the great sacrifice of this brave dog.
Although Laika was the first dog in space, the Soviet Union space program had previously sent two dogs, Dezik and Tsygan, to a suborbital altitude of 110 kilometres in 1951. Fortunately, the two survived this ordeal. After Laika, Soviet Union’s space scientists sent a total of 57 dogs into space, while most survived, others did not.
So, was the death of these dogs of no consequence? Far from it. The sacrifice of these dogs is what laid the foundation for sending men and women into space.