Dogs in Space: Meet the Soviet Union space programme’s unsung heroes

Today is the 60th anniversary of Laika – a Moscow stray – being blasted off Earth to become the first dog in space. In honour of the occasion, here is Duncan Geere’s piece on the full history of the Soviet’s canine space team.

Dogs in Space: Meet the Soviet Union space programme's unsung heroes

Dogs have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years. Their superior tracking abilities made them invaluable to early hunter-gatherers.

This relationship persists today, but the apex of the bond of friendship between the two species may have come in 1957, when a three-year-old mongrel was picked up on the streets of Moscow. She weighed about six kilograms and was thought to be part-husky and part-terrier. She was given various nicknames, including Kudryavka (“Little Curly”).

Having survived several harsh Russian winters, Laika was the perfect candidate for an experimental programme being run by the Soviet government. A medical scientist working for the space programme, Vladimir Yazdovsky, had launched a number of dogs to altitudes of more than 450km in pressurised rockets, and Laika was chosen to take part.

laika_soviet_space_dogLaika: the original Soviet space dog. Image: Fair use.

While the US tested their rocket programme using monkeys, about two-thirds of whom died, dogs were chosen by the Soviet Union for their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity. Only stray female dogs were used, because it was thought they’d be better able to cope with the extreme stress of spaceflight, and the spacesuits designed for the programme were equipped with a device to collect faeces and urine that only worked with females.

The dogs were thoroughly trained before their journeys. This included standing still for long periods, wearing the spacesuits, being confined to increasingly small boxes for 15 to 20 days at a time, riding in centrifuges to simulate the high acceleration of launch and being placed in machines that simulated the vibrations and loud noises of a rocket.

The first pair of dogs to travel to space were Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), who made it to 110km on 22 July 1951 and were recovered, unharmed, the next day. Dezik returned to space in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa, but neither survived. After Dezik’s death, Tsygan was adopted by Anatoli Blagonravov, a doctor who later worked closely with the US at the height of the cold war to promote international co-operation on spaceflight.baker

While the Soviets used dogs, the Americans worked with monkeys. This is Baker. (Public domain)

“Smelaya (“Brave”), defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”).”

They were followed by Smelaya (“Brave”), who defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”). Another runaway was Bolik, who successfully escaped a few days before her flight in September 1951. Her replacement – ignominiously named ZIB , an acronym for “substitute for missing bolik” – was a street dog found running around the barracks where the tests were being conducted. Despite not being trained, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.

In June 1954, another dog named Lisa flew to an altitude of 100km with a companion named Ryzhik (“Ginger”), returning successfully. Neither had to deal with the trauma of a mid-air ejection at an altitude of 85km, as Albina and Tsyganka (“Gypsy Girl”) did. The pair landed safely, and scientists involved noted how well Albina had coped with the journey.

In 1957, Soviet scientists were ready to attempt something rather more audacious – an orbital flight. Sputnik was launched on 4 October 1957 in a storm of publicity, sparking a crisis of sorts in the US. This triggered the space race, and led not only to the creation of NASA, the Apollo programme and the moon landings, but also a vast increase in the funding of science.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in full thaw, decided to increase the pressure on the US, so Sputnik was followed only a month later by Sputnik 2 – a mission to put a living creature into orbit. The Soviets didn’t have the time to build the technology to bring the craft back, so it was known from the start that whichever animal was chosen would perish in space.

A longlist of ten canine cosmonauts was drawn up, which was then reduced to a shortlist of three. They were Albina , who’d already ejected from 85km; a dog named Mushka (“Little Fly”); and the aforementioned Kudryavka, who had impressed her trainers with her calm, quiet demeanour in the face of simulated stresses.

This even temperament won her the honour of becoming the first animal in orbit, and she was renamed Laika (“Barker”). In the days before launch, she was kept in the module she would fly in , which was padded, had enough room for her to stand up and lie down and gave her access to a specially designed nutritious jelly that was high in fibre.dog_space_voyage_padded_box

Dogs were housed in padded boxes like this for their voyage, allowing them space to stand or sit and giving them access to food // Benutzer:HPH CC BY-SA 3.0

Before launch, she was covered in an alcohol solution and painted with iodine in the places where sensors were connected to her skin to monitor her heartbeat, her blood pressure and other biological variables.

“While Laika certainly made it into space alive, it’s not clear how long she lived after that.”

On 3 November 1957, Laika blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and became the first creature to orbit the Earth. The launch went smoothly, and her capsule entered an elliptical orbit, circling the planet at 29,000km/h and completing a full rotation every hour and 42 minutes.

While Laika certainly made it into space alive, it’s not clear how long she lived after that. It was originally announced that she had been euthanised with poisoned food several days into the mission, but this story was subsequently changed. Apparently, she had died when her oxygen supply ran out on the sixth day of her journey.dogs_in_space_stamp

Laika on a Romanian postage stamp. Public domain

However, in October 2002, 45 years after her journey, it was revealed that Laika had most likely perished a few hours after launch from overheating and stress caused by the failure of a rocket component to separate from the capsule.

“Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who worked on the mission, said in 1998 that he regretted sending Laika to her death.”

Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who worked on the mission, said in 1998 that he regretted sending Laika to her death. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak,” he said. “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.”

Nonetheless, the mission was another great success for the Soviets, and the space programme continued. One of the most travelled dogs was Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”), who accompanied a dog named Snezhinka (“Snowflake”) into sub-orbital space on 2 July 1959 before making five more successful flights that year.

On 28 July 1960, Bars (“Snow Leopard”) and Lisichka (“Little Fox”) were chosen to follow Laika into orbit, but both perished after their rocket exploded just 28 seconds into the launch sequence. This crash caused considerable uproar within the Soviet space programme, since the problem that had caused the explosion had supposedly been fixed.

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