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Laika (from the Russian Лайка, a breed of dog, literally meaning, "Barker" or "Howler") was a Russian space dog (c. 1954 November 3, 1957) that became the first earthling to orbit the Earth. Laika, a stray, originally named Kudryavka (Russian: кудрявка, literally meaning, "Little Curly-Haired One"), underwent training with two other dogs, and was eventually chosen as the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into space on November 3 1957.

Laika died a few hours after launch from stress and overheating, probably due to a malfunction in the thermal control system. The true cause of her death was not made public until decades after the flight.

Although Laika did not survive the trip, the experiment proved that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness. It paved the way for human spaceflight and provided scientists with some of the first data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments.

On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika. The small monument is near a military research facility in Moscow that prepared Laika's flight to space. It features a dog standing on top of a rocket. Little was known about the impact of space flight on living things at the time Laika's mission was launched. Some believed they would be unable to survive the launch or the conditions of outer space, so Soviet space engineers viewed dogs' flights as a necessary precursor to human missions.

Sputnik 2

After the success of Sputnik 1, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, wanted a second spacecraft launched on November 7, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. A more sophisticated satellite was already under construction, but it would not be ready until December; this satellite would later become Sputnik 3.

To meet the November deadline, a new, less sophisticated design had to be built. According to Russian sources, the official decision to launch Sputnik 2 was made on October 10 or 12, leaving the team only four weeks to design and build the space craft. Sputnik 2, therefore, was something of a rush job, with most elements of the space craft being constructed from rough sketches. Aside from the primary mission of sending a living passenger into space, Sputnik 2 also contained instrumentation for measuring solar radiation and cosmic rays.

The craft was equipped with a life-support system consisting of an O2 generator and devices to avoid oxygen poisoning and to absorb CO2. A fan, designed to activate whenever the cabin temperature exceeded 15 °C (59 °F), was added to keep the dog cool. Enough food (in a gelatinous form) was provided for a seven-day flight, and the dog was fitted with a bag to collect waste. A harness was designed to be fitted to the dog, and there were chains to restrict its movements to standing, sitting or lying down; there was no room to turn around in the cabin. An electrocardiogram monitored heart rate and further instrumentation tracked respiration rate, maximum arterial pressure and the dog's movements.

Training and voyage

The dog that would later be named Laika was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow. She was an eleven-pound mongrel female, approximately three years old. Another account reported that she weighed about 6 kg (13 lb). Soviet personnel gave her several names and nicknames, among them Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug) and Limonchik (Little Lemon). Laika, the Russian name for several breeds of dogs similar to the husky, was the name popularized around the world. The American press dubbed her Muttnik (mutt + suffix -nik) as a pun on Sputnik, or referred to her as Curly. Her true pedigree is unknown, although it is generally accepted that she was part husky or other Nordic breed, and possibly part terrier. A Russian magazine described her temperament as phlegmatic, saying that she did not quarrel with other dogs.

The Soviet Union and the United States had previously sent animals only on sub-orbital flights. Three dogs were trained for the Sputnik 2 flight: Albina, Mushka, and Laika. Russian space-life scientist Oleg Gazenko selected and trained Laika. Albina flew twice on a high-altitude test rocket, and Mushka was used to test instrumentation and life support.

To adapt the dogs to the confines of the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2, they were kept in progressively smaller cages for periods up to 20 days. The extensive close confinement caused them to stop urinating or defecating, made them restless, and caused their general condition to deteriorate. Laxatives did not improve their condition, and the researchers found that only long periods of training proved effective. The dogs were placed in centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch and were placed in machines that simulated the noises of the spacecraft. This caused their pulses to double and their blood pressure to increase by 30–65 torr. The dogs were trained to eat a special high-nutrition gel that would be their food in space.

Before being taken to the launch pad, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children. In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote, "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."

According to a NASA document, Laika was placed in the satellite on October 31 1957—three days before the start of the mission. The temperatures at the launch site were extremely cold at that time of year, so a hose connected to a heater was used to keep her container warm. Two assistants were assigned to keep a constant watch on Laika before launch. Just prior to liftoff on November 3 1957 from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Laika's fur was sponged in a weak alcohol solution and carefully groomed. Iodine was painted onto areas where sensors would be placed to monitor her bodily functions.

At peak acceleration Laika's respiration increased to between three and four times the pre-launch rate. The sensors showed her heart rate was 103 beats/min before launch and increased to 240 beats/min during the early acceleration. After reaching orbit, Sputnik 2's nose cone was jettisoned successfully. However, the "Block A" core did not separate as planned, stopping the thermal control system from operating correctly. Some of the thermal insulation tore loose, raising the cabin temperature to 40 °C (104 °F). After three hours of weightlessness, Laika's pulse rate had settled back to 102 beats/min, three times longer than it had taken during earlier ground tests, an indication of the stress she was under. The early telemetry indicated that Laika was agitated but eating her food. Approximately five to seven hours into the flight, no further signs of life were received from the spacecraft.

The Russian scientists had planned to euthanize Laika with a poisoned serving of food. For many years, the Soviet Union gave conflicting statements that she had died either from oxygen starvation when the batteries failed, or that she had been euthanized. Many rumours circulated about the exact manner of her passing. In 1999, several Russian sources said that she died after four days when the cabin overheated. Then in October 2002, Dr. Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists behind the Sputnik 2 mission, revealed that Laika had died five to seven hours after launch from overheating and stress. According to a paper he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, "It turned out that it was practically impossible to create a reliable temperature control system in such limited time constraints."

Sputnik 2 disintegrated (along with Laika's remains) during re-entry on April 14, 1958, just over 5 months later, after 2,570 orbits.


Due to the overshadowing issue of the Soviet vs. American Space Race, the ethical problems of this experiment went largely unaddressed for some time. As newspaper clippings from 1957 show, the press was more preoccupied with reporting the political perspective, while the health and retrieval (or lack thereof) of Laika was hardly mentioned. Only later were there discussions regarding the fate of the dog.

Sputnik 2 was not designed to be retrievable, so Laika had always been intended to die. The mission sparked a debate across the globe on the mistreatment of animals and animal testing in general to advance science.

In the United Kingdom, the National Canine Defence League called on all dog owners to observe a minute's silence, while the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) received protests even before the Soviet Union had finished announcing the mission's success. Animal rights groups at the time called on members of the public to protest at Soviet embassies. Others demonstrated outside the United Nations in New York; nevertheless, laboratory researchers in the U.S. offered some support for the Russians, at least before the news of Laika's death.

In the Soviet Union, there was apparently less controversy. Neither the media, books in the following years, nor the public openly questioned the decision to send a dog into space to die. It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed regret for allowing her to die: "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

In popular culture

NASA named this soil target on Mars after Laika during the Mars Exploration Rover mission

Laika's pioneering journey made her one of the most famous dogs in the world.

Her bas relief is on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space (1964), along with cosmonauts and engineers. A plaque commemorating fallen cosmonauts was unveiled at the Institute for Aviation and Space Medicine in Star City, Moscow, on November 1997; Laika appears in one corner. Several postage stamps from different countries have pictured her. Brands of chocolate and cigarettes were named in her honour, and a large collection of Laika memorabilia still appear in auctions today.

On March 9, 2005, a patch of soil on Mars was unofficially named Laika by mission controllers. It is located near Vostok Crater in Meridiani Planum. It was examined by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's microscopic imager on Sol 400.

On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument dedicated to the memory of Laika. The small monument is near a military research facility in Moscow that prepared Laika's flight to space on November 3, 1957. It features a dog standing on top of a rocket.

Laika has been featured in numerous works of literature, often with a theme of her survival or rescue. The novel Intervention by Julian May mentions Laika's rescue by a sympathetic alien race. In the novel Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson, the Ancient Greek titan Atlas finds Laika's capsule in orbit and adopts the dog. In Habitus, by James Flint, Laika survives and continues to orbit the earth, having learned to draw sustenance from the world's radio transmissions. There are also stories of her funeral (in the Doctor Who novel Alien Bodies) and travel to other planets (in the comic anthology Flight). Contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami's book, Sputnik Sweetheart, refers to Laika's death on its title page with a quotation from The Complete Chronicle of World History. Nick Abadzis' graphic novel Laika is a fictionalized version of the dog's life.

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