On 3 November 1957, a street dog named Laika became the first Earthling to orbit our planet.
The Soviet Union had launched many good dogs into outer space before, but Laika became a global sensation because she was the first to enter low Earth orbit.
As The New Yorker wrote in its remembrance of the hero, the Soviet Union space program chose Laika because the mutt fit all the Soviet’s doggonaut requirements at the time – she was scrappy enough to survive the rough streets of Moscow but colourful enough that she photographed well. The program also chose females because they were thought to be less temperamental than male dogs, and because it was more difficult to design suits that accommodated male canine genitalia.
Laika was bound into a crude spacesuit and loaded into Sputnik 2 a month after the spacecraft’s predecessor became the first satellite launched into low Earth orbit. Ever a lover of dog puns, the United States press gave her the nickname Muttnick.
Many American animal lovers were horrified by the fate that awaited Laika. A few years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote of Laika in his memoir: “By a strange and compassionate turn, public opinion seemed to resent the sending of a dog to certain death – resentment that the Soviet propagandists tried to assuage, after it’s death, by announcing that it had been comfortable to the end.”
It seems unlikely that the dog was comfortable in her final moments. At the time the Soviet Government assured the concerned public that Laika was euthanised before death. But in 2002, one of Sputnik 2’s scientists revealed that Laika died from overheating a few hours into the journey. The Soviet space program had been eager for good PR and only gave its engineers less than a month to build Sputnik 2, so there wasn’t enough time to test the life-support system.
Laika’s trainer, Adilya Kotovskaya, a Russian biologist, recently told Agence France-Presse of her remorse as she prepared to send Laika into space: “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time.”
We hope that Laika enjoyed her brief moment soaring through the heavens before she perished. After the casket made 2570 orbits, she fell to the earth, a blaze of light above the Caribbean. Too good to return to this cruel world.