MOSCOW – Friday marks the 60th anniversary of Laika, a dog from the streets of Moscow, undertaking a voyage in the spacecraft Sputnik 2 that made her the first living being to orbit the Earth, thus opening the doors of space to humanity.
Barely a month had passed since the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, in October 1957 and Soviet scientists were curious to find out how a living being would behave in low gravity conditions with the intention of eventually sending humans to space.
Prior to Laika’s voyage, experiments had been carried out with monkeys in the United States and dogs in the Soviet Union, but all such experiments involved sub-orbital flights.
Given the design of Sputnik 2, the dog had to weigh between six and seven kilograms (13.2 to 15.4 pounds), measure no more 35 centimeters (13.8 inches) at the withers, be a stray since pedigree dogs are not as resistant, and be of light color, which experts believed would show up better in images.
For room and hygiene reasons, females were preferred, since, unlike males, they do not lift their legs to urinate, which made it easier to fit a sanitary system.
It was a voyage without return since the design of the system, which featured a food dispenser and an air regeneration system that would last seven days, did not allow her to be brought back to Earth.
There were two other candidates selected to potentially occupy Sputnik 2’s chamber – Albina, who had already undertaken two sub-orbital flights, and Muja, who was a rookie just like Laika.
Albina was reprieved because of the contributions she had already made to science, while Muja had slightly bowed front legs, which supposedly made her less photogenic.
Laika was operated upon in order to fit her with two sensors – one in the ribs to control her breathing and another in her carotid arteries to monitor her pulse.
During the first few minutes of the flight, scientists detected a sharp acceleration in Laika’s pulse and respiratory movements, but her physiological parameters gradually became normal.
However, after a few hours, due to calculation errors, the temperature in the capsule’s interior rose to more than 40 degrees centigrade (104F), which resulted in Laika’s death after she had encircled the Earth multiple times.
Soviet authorities decided to conceal the details and for a week reported on the dog’s health, as if the trip had been taking place without incident, until it released the information that Laika, who was already a celebrity, had to be sacrificed.
Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the earth before it disintegrated during re-entry in April 1958.
While Laika became the last ever Soviet dog to be sent on a spacecraft without provisions to return, she was not the last canine to lose its life in the race to conquering space.
In July 1960, the dogs Chayka and Lisichka died in an explosion shortly after launch destroyed their Sputnik 5-1 spacecraft, which was equipped with a return system.