Laika, a dog that was the first living creature to be launched into Earth orbit, on board the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik 2, on November 3, 1957. It was always understood that Laika would not survive the mission, but her actual fate was misrepresented for decades.
Laika was a small (13 pounds atleast 6 kg), even-tempered, mixed-breed dog about two years of age. She was one of a number of stray dogs that were taken into the Soviet spaceflight program after being rescued from the streets. Only female dogs were used because they were considered to be anatomically better suited than males for close confinement. Laika trained for life on board the satellite by learning to accept progressively smaller living spaces.
Laika was far from the first dog to ride aboard a Russian rocket. Six years earlier, a pair of dogs named Dezik and Tsygan had reached the cusp of outer space, and since then more than two dozen others had followed. In each case, the Soviets had chosen their test subjects from among Moscow’s strays, on the theory that surviving on the lean streets of the capital was good preparation for the rigors of spaceflight.
The milestone came less than a month after the Soviets kicked off the Space Age, and the Cold War space race, with the launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4. Sputnik 2 was a suicide mission for the poor dog, the satellite was not designed to come safely back to Earth.
Soviet accounts implied that the dog was kept alive for six or seven days into the mission and then euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen supply could run out. The satellite was destroyed reentering Earth’s atmosphere on April 14, 1958. Laika’s sad fate aroused worldwide concern and sympathy.
The Soviets admitted that Laika would never again set foot on Earth. After a week in orbit, the Los Angeles Times reported, she would be fed poisoned food, “in order to keep her from suffering a slow agony.” When the moment came, Russian scientists reassured the public that Laika had been comfortable, if stressed, for much of her flight, that she had died painlessly, and that she had made invaluable contributions to space science.
In 2002, however, Russian scientist Dimitri Malashenkov revealed that the previous accounts of her death were false. Laika had actually survived only about five to seven hours after liftoff before dying of overheating and panic. It was belatedly made known that Laika’s pulse rate, which had been measured with electrodes, tripled during takeoff and only came down somewhat during weightlessness.