There’s a lot that we miss out on when we refuse to look back and learn about the past. Most especially those of our little heroes and history makers that were rarely mentioned in textbooks. Yes, we’re talking about the dogs in history whose stories have somehow gotten buried and have been forgotten throughout the years. 

Not all stories of triumph and history-making are happy ones. Some, while record-breaking, are difficult to talk about.

Just like the story behind Laika, the first space dog and animal to orbit the earth.

LAUNCH OF SPUTNIK 2

With her heart pounding at peak acceleration, Laika’s respiration increased to between three and four times the pre-launch rate. The noises and pressures of flight terrified Laika: her heartbeat rocketed to triple the normal rate, and her breath rate quadrupled. Stuck inside a tiny metal container, she was set off to what would soon be her first and last trip to space. 

In the early days of rocket science, no one knew what the effects of weightlessness would be. Animals were used to test the safety and feasibility of launching a living being into space and bringing it back unharmed.

LAIKA’S JOURNEY AND PREPARATION FOR THE LAUNCH OF SPUTNIK 2

Laika was young, a two-year-old husky mix. (The name Laika is derived from the Russian-language word for “bark.”) She was rescued from the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists assumed that a stray dog would be the perfect test subject because they would have already learned to endure harsh conditions of hunger and cold temperatures. 

There was a wide search for dogs and they had a couple to choose from. Finally, Vladimir Yazdovsky made the final selection of dogs and their designated roles. Laika was to be the “flight dog” — a sacrifice to science on a one-way mission to space. Albina, who had already flown twice on a high-altitude test rocket, was to act as Laika’s backup. The third dog, Mushka, was a “control dog” — she was to stay on the ground and be used to test instrumentation and life support.

They were the three dogs who were trained for space travel by being kept in small cages and learning to eat a nutritious gel that would be their food in space. 

They trained for life on board the satellite by learning to accept progressively smaller living spaces. Laika was spun in a centrifuge to accustom her to changes in gravitation, and she learned to accept food in a jellied form that could be easily served in an environment of weightlessness.

The doctors also checked their reactions to changes in air pressure and to loud noises that would accompany liftoff. Testers fitted candidates with a sanitation device connected to the pelvic area. The dogs did not like the devices, and to avoid using them, some retained bodily waste, even after consuming laxatives. However, some adapted.

THE LAUNCH OF SPUTNIK 2 AND DEMISE OF OUR FIRST SPACE DOG

The launch was in preparation for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, meaning the Soviet scientists had insufficient time to perfect the life-support system because of the intense political pressure of the launch of Sputnik 2.  

Due to the lack of adequate development time, no provisions were made to recover Laika. A re-entry strategy could not be worked out in time for the launch. It is unknown exactly how long Laika lived in orbit — perhaps a few hours or a few days — until the power to her life-support system gave out. Sputnik 2 burned up in the upper atmosphere in April 1958.

It was said that the Soviet scientists had planned to euthanize Laika with a poisoned serving of food. For many years, the Soviet Union gave conflicting statements that she had died either from asphyxia, when the batteries failed, or that she had been euthanized. 

There have been multiple speculations about the real cause of her death, but whatever the actual cause was, people still see Laika’s story with pity for the poor dog.

LAIKA’S LEGACY AND MEMORIALIZATION

Just like any other hero, Laika was honored after her death, but it wasn’t immediate. Laika inspired much more than just scientific achievement. From movies to bands, Laika’s story touches the hearts of those who hear it.

Laika was memorialized in the form of a statue and plaque at Star City, Russia, the Russian Cosmonaut training facility, created in 1997.  But, it was only until 2008, around 50 years after her death, when they finally put up a statue in her honor in the Russian capital.

There were also stamps (that had the words “Laika, first traveller into cosmos” printed on it) and envelopes picturing Laika that were produced, as well as branded cigarettes and matches.

In July 2005, Phil Knight founded Laika Studios and named it in honor of her.

The story of this dog, who is deemed a hero, is one of the reasons why people have become more aware of the dangers of animal testing.

While scientists now are far more advanced than they were before in terms of rocket science and animal handling, we must never forget the life that was led by our space dog, Laika. 

More stories waiting to be talked about again. Hope you’ll stay tuned for more Dogs in History!