Laika’s Fateful Space Mission. The True Story of the First Dog in Space

Introduction

In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a space race to demonstrate technological superiority. On November 3, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2, the second artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Aboard was a small dog named Laika, making her the first living creature from Earth to orbit the planet.

Laika was a stray mongrel dog found on the streets of Moscow. She was selected by Soviet scientists to be the occupant of Sputnik 2 due to her small size and even temperament. At that time, the technology did not exist to safely return Laika to Earth, so it was understood at launch that her mission would be a one-way trip.

The Sputnik 2 mission marked a major milestone in the space race. Launching the first orbital spacecraft with a living passenger was an impressive demonstration of Soviet technological capabilities. Though Laika occupied a small cabin and had limited mobility, her presence aboard Sputnik 2 proved that living organisms could survive the launch and conditions of being in Earth orbit.

Launch of Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2 was launched at 02:30:42 UTC on November 3, 1957 from Site 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was launched aboard the Sputnik 8K71PS rocket, the same rocket that launched Sputnik 11. Sputnik 2 was a 4 meter high cone-shaped capsule that contained several compartments for scientific instruments, life support systems for the dog Laika, and radio transmitters2.

sputnik 2 spacecraft launching with laika inside a pressurized cabin.

Laika, a stray dog found on the streets of Moscow, was housed in a small pressurized cabin only big enough for her to stand, sit, or lie down. The cabin contained several devices to monitor Laika’s vital signs during the flight1.

Mission Objectives

Sputnik 2 had both scientific and political goals. Scientifically, the mission aimed to study how living organisms behaved in the space environment. Laika, the dog onboard, was instrumented to monitor her vital signs, movements, and reactions during spaceflight (wikipedia.org). This provided the first data on a living organism in orbit. Politically, the launch of Sputnik 2 just a month after Sputnik 1 gave the Soviet space program momentum and prestige in the Space Race with the US. Sputnik 2 demonstrated the Soviets’ capability to quickly launch complex missions with live passengers (aas.org).

Laika was fitted with sensors to monitor her vital signs, oxygen intake, blood pressure, and movements throughout the flight. Scientists analyzed her reaction to acceleration, weightlessness, and radiation exposure during orbit. Unfortunately, the technology to return Laika safely back to Earth did not exist at the time. The data on her physiological response during launch and in orbit was transmitted back to Earth via telemetry for around 5-7 hours until her oxygen ran out (nasa.gov).

Laika’s Training

Laika, a 3-year-old stray dog from the streets of Moscow, was selected from a pool of dogs to be the first living passenger launched into orbit (phys.org). She underwent intensive training and preparation for spaceflight prior to the mission. Laika and two other dogs underwent confinement, noise, vibration, and G-force tests to see how they would cope with space travel.

laika undergoing training and tests to prepare for spaceflight.

There was controversy around sending a dog to certain death in space. Some questioned the ethics of sacrificing Laika’s life for the sake of the mission. Animal rights groups protested the launch. However, the Soviet government defended it as necessary to advance the space program. They claimed there was not enough technology at the time to deorbit Laika and enable her to return safely (phys.org).

Experience in Orbit

Laika was the first living creature to orbit the Earth. After being launched on the Sputnik 2 spacecraft on November 3, 1957, she spent about 5-7 hours in flight before dying from overheating and stress. The Soviet scientists had planned for Laika to live for 10 days in orbit, but the thermal control system on Sputnik 2 failed soon after launch.

Telemetry received from the spacecraft showed that during launch, Laika’s pulse rate increased to three times its normal level. The sensors on her space suit also indicated increasingly high carbon dioxide concentrations and rising temperatures. After 5-7 hours, no further life signs were received from Laika.

Due to the limits of technology at the time, the true cause and time of Laika’s death in orbit could not be conclusively determined. But it is clear from the data sent back, that she endured significant stress and overheating before dying several hours into the mission. Laika was the first animal to orbit Earth, but tragically became the first space casualty as well.

Misconceptions

There are some common myths and misconceptions about Laika’s mission and fate that have persisted over the years. Some key points to address:

  • Laika survived for days/weeks in orbit – This is false. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Laika died within hours from overheating and panic.
  • Laika was the first living being in space – While she was the first to orbit, earlier sub-orbital flights carried dogs and other animals. According to Space.com, Laika was one of several dogs trained for space missions.
  • Laika’s death was hidden by the Soviets – They did initially claim she lived for days, but in 2002 revealed she died shortly after launch. As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, Laika’s fate was misrepresented for years.
  • Laika’s body remains in orbit – In fact, her orbital capsule burned up on re-entry after a few months, according to Britannica. No part of the spacecraft remains in space.

Death in Space

Laika died within hours of the launch of Sputnik 2, likely due to overheating and stress. According to Oleg Gazenko, a Russian scientist who worked on the Soviet space program, Laika only lived for a few hours in orbit before dying. The temperature inside the spacecraft rose sharply once in space, and likely reached extreme levels for Laika. As a stray dog taken off the streets of Moscow, she had little training for the extreme conditions of spaceflight. The Soviet Union did not reveal Laika’s true fate for many years, initially claiming she lived for several days on board before a painless death. It was not until after the fall of the Soviet Union that the full truth emerged – Laika overheated and panicked not long after reaching orbit. While heartbreaking, Laika’s death advanced the Soviet space program and the understanding of conditions in space. Her sacrifice helped pave the way for human spaceflight in the years after.

Sources:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sad-story-laika-space-dog-and-her-one-way-trip-orbit-1-180968728/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laika

Legacy

Although Laika’s mission ended tragically, her legacy has lived on. As the first living creature in orbit, Laika proved that a living passenger could survive the launch and weightlessness of spaceflight, paving the way for human spaceflight. Her mission showed that animals could endure the conditions of launch and space.[1]

monuments and exhibits memorializing laika's sacrifice for space exploration.

Laika has been memorialized in a number of ways. A monument in Moscow features Laika leaping into the sky atop a rocket. The World Space Museum in Washington DC hosts an exhibit honoring space animals, including Laika. Several films, books, webcomics, and songs have been dedicated to her story as well. An impact crater on Mars was named “Laika” in her honor. Sixty years after her mission, Laika continues to be recognized for her sacrifice and contributions to space exploration.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laika

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/remembering-laika-space-dog-and-soviet-hero

Ethics

There has been significant debate around the ethics of sending Laika into space. While Laika’s mission provided valuable data, many questioned whether it was ethical to subject her to the experimental risks of spaceflight. According to Laika the Space Dog: The Ethics of Animal Experimentation, “The story of Laika, the dog sent into outer space by the Soviet Union, raises questions about the morality of using animals for scientific purposes without their consent.”

Critics argued that Laika faced near-certain death on the mission. As described in The Case Against Sending Animals Into Space, “Space travel in the near future is going to be, at best, severely stressful and uncomfortable for humans. So one can only imagine how much more stressful and deadly it’s going to be for animals.” There were no plans for Laika to return safely.

On the other side, supporters contended that Laika’s mission advanced scientific knowledge critical for future human spaceflight. Her experience provided data on the impact of launch, weightlessness, and radiation that could not be simulated on Earth. According to The Ethics of Animal Research, Laika’s mission “paved the way for human spaceflight.”

The debate surrounding Laika highlights difficult questions about the ethical costs and scientific benefits of animal testing. Her legacy continues to spur discussion on the humane treatment of animals used for research.

Conclusion

In summary, Laika’s mission aboard Sputnik 2 represented a historic milestone in space exploration. As the first living creature to orbit the Earth, Laika proved that spaceflight was possible for animals and paved the way for future human space missions. Though she died within hours due to overheating and stress, her sacrifice advanced science and the Soviet space program. Laika demonstrated that a living passenger could survive the launch and conditions of being in orbit, even if not designed to return safely. Her mission captivated the world’s attention and imagination, making Laika an enduring symbol of animal valor and the spirit of space exploration.

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