Kudryavka (Little Curly), Limonchik (Little Lemon), Damka (Little Lady). Muttnik, maybe?

Or for sure — LAIKA. Laika the great.

Two-year-old stray, right from the roughness of Moscow streets. Laika was the first dog cosmonaut to orbit the Earth on this day in 1957. We celebrate Laika as a stepping stone to human space achievements and as a canine predecessor to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

Yet, Russians seem to looove their stray dogs in space. Laika was for sure the pioneer to orbit our planet but was certainly not the first one to ride aboard a Russian space rocket. Six years before Laika, Dezik and Tsygan had reached the cusp of outer space, and since then, more than two dozen others had followed.

But the casting was peculiar. The Soviets had chosen their test subjects from exclusively among Moscow’s strays, on the theory that surviving on the mean streets of the capital was good pre-training for the turmoil of spaceflight. Next, the dogs had to be small, but not too small; they had to have brightly colored coats (so that they would show up on film); they had to be female, to simplify the design of their suits (they are smaller in size and don’t pee with one leg moving). Do, the audition rules had to be set for the space flight, I guess.

For the Sputnik 2 mission, assigned military doctors selected three out of 10 available dogs: Laika (as a “flight dog”); Albina (a backup, who previously made two ballistic flights on rockets) and Mukha (a “technological” (control) dog, which scientists used for testing equipment). Ten days before launch, Vladimir Yazdovsky, who led the program of flying dogs on rockets, selected Laika to be a literal sacrifice to science on a one-way mission to space. )

Laika was around two years old and had a mass of around six kilograms. Before the departure to the launch site, Yazdovsky and Gazenko, Soviet space-life scientists, conducted all the training and even the surgery on dogs, in order to route cables from breathing, pulse and blood-pressure sensors to the transmitters.

The time has come.

In the middle of the day before launch, Laika was placed into her holding container and she was lifted to the top of the rocket around one hour after midnight on November 3, 1957.

It was a cold night, November 3, 1957.

As remembered by Yevgeniy Shabarov, “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.”

The launch of Sputnik 2 was timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The craft itself was an appropriately showy statement of Communist know-how—six times heavier than Sputnik 1, designed to fly nearly twice as high, and, most impressive of all, containing a live passenger. But the thing was — it was hella rushed out. Sputnik 1 was on the route just a month before!

In the beginning, it wasn’t clear whether Laika would come back to Earth alive. It was speculated in western media and the Soviets finally admitted that Laika would never again set foot on our home planet after all.
Yet, Russians wanted to reassure the public that she would be euthanized after a week in orbit  “in order to keep her from suffering a slow agony.” When the moment came, Russian scientists told the public that Laika had died painlessly and that she had made invaluable contributions to space science.

Within the Soviet Union, Laika and her comrades were seen as heroes. The animals were so well-loved, in fact, that when Yuri Gargarin achieved orbit, in 1961, he is said to have remarked, Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?

Anyway.

But the story of Laika had a huge dark lie at its core.

In 2002, forty-five years after the mission, Russian scientists revealed that she had died, probably in agony, after just a few hours in orbit. In the rush to put another satellite into space after the Sputnik 1, the Soviet engineers had not had time to test Sputnik 2’s cooling system properly.

The capsule had overheated.

It remained in orbit for five months with Laika inside, then plunged into the atmosphere and burned up over the Caribbean, like a space coffin turned shooting star. One of the scientists assigned to Laika’s program has said: The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.

62 years later, as humans reach farther and farther into the solar system, as we contemplate colonizing remote planets and reaching distant stars, we can’t help but wonder and conclude — space exploration needn’t be an assault on the universe, a militaristic enterprise was undertaken without regard for other creatures’ suffering. As we humanize space, it is more obvious how dogs humanize — humans.

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