Photo from Wikipedia.
Just a week after Russia beat the United States in the race to reach space, a decade into the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered another rocket launched into orbit to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In a ruthless rush to capture the world’s attention with another first, the idea to blast a living being into outer space—a dog, named Laika—became plausible, and Soviet engineers clamored to find a way to do it. They had only three weeks.
On November 3, 1957, three-year-old stray husky mix stripped off the streets of Moscow became the first living creature to orbit Earth—a ride she wasn’t expected to survive. Laika (meaning “Barker”) was how American media referred to her (when they weren’t calling her Muttnik), but the Russians had all sorts of nicknames for their test subject: Kudryavka (“Little Curly”), Zhuchka (“Little Bug”), and Limonchik (“Little Lemon”). Two other dogs, Albina and Mushka, were extensively tested and trained to enter orbit as well, but in the end, only Laika was chosen.
At the time of the mission, very little was known about how an animal would fare in spaceflight. In fact, de-orbiting technology hadn’t even been invented yet, but none of this dissuaded the Soviets. They’d resolved themselves to Laika’s fate.
When Sputnik 2 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the rocket reached space and Laika began to orbit Earth. She did so traveling at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour, circling the globe every 102 minutes. As the world watched, Russia confessed through the media that a recovery plan hadn’t been developed. One technician preparing the capsule for liftoff stated that “after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.” Laika died within hours from overheating, but her exact time of death became a contentious matter for decades to follow.
Soviets first claimed that she was euthanized prior to oxygen depletion. Then they said she died when her oxygen ran out on the sixth day of spaceflight. It wasn’t until 2002 that Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists behind the original mission, came forth and revealed that Laika had died by the fourth circuit of flight from overheating, just a few hours after launching. Her last hours were spent watching Earth spin before her, herself spinning even faster about Earth, weightlessly navigating the space between celestial bodies and, eventually, becoming one of them. Sputnik 2 burned up five months later, along with Laika’s remains, during reentry on April 14, 1958.