Laika the Soviet Space DoG
On November 3, 1957, a tiny capsule rocketed into the sky. Inside was a diminutive, 14-pound, black and white dog named Laika. And when her spaceship pierced the Earth’s atmosphere, she became the first creature in history to make it to outer space. No small feat for a stray that only days before had been fighting for scraps on the streets of Moscow!
Laika’s unlikely journey was borne out of the race to prove that human spaceflight was possible. Just a month earlier, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union—Cold War nemesis of the United States—launched into orbit history’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. That’s when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev insisted that his scientists perform a second test—this time to determine if a living being could survive the journey to the stars.
The mission was too dangerous to risk a human life, so the Soviets decided to train a stray dog to be Russia’s first cosmonaut. Nine days before the scheduled launch, they chose Laika for her gentle disposition and natural beauty. If she was to make history, they reasoned, she would need to be photogenic.
Laika did make history. Monitors followed the sound of her tiny beating heart all the way into Earth’s orbit. She had survived to become Earth’s first space traveler. But there was a problem: the Soviets had not worked out how to get Laika back. She perished, circling the earth, most likely from the profound heat created by the capsule’s firing rockets.
Laika’s journey sparked not one but two historic advances: the era of human space exploration, and the animal rights movement, particularly in scientific testing. She became a global folk hero. Her sacrifice inspired poems and novels. She was featured on stamps and coins, and memorialized in a Moscow statue. Her fame ensured that going forward efforts would be made to protect the lives of canine cosmonauts.
Sure enough, on August 19, 1960, two more Moscow strays, Belka and Strelka, became the first living creatures to make the round trip to space.