On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, which became the first satellite to circle earth. About a month later, on November 3, 1957 Sputnik 2 launched carrying in it the first living creature to orbit the earth – a dog named Laika.
By training and orbiting the small female dog, scientists wanted to experiment whether a human body could withstand the pressure of space flight.
Laika was one of several stray dogs, the Soviet space program trained for the space experiment. They purposely wanted stray animals because they believed these dogs were able to survive and adapt to harsher situations better than non-strays.
Because very little was known about space travel at that time, there was no re-entry plan for Laika and her space trip most certainly meant death.
Official Soviet documents state that after a week in space, Laika was humanely euthanized. Animal rights associations called the official documents false and said that Laika had starved to death. The truth came out after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Laika was supposed to be euthanized, she actually died after a few hours in orbit because of overheating and fear.
The Soviet space program continued to experiment with dogs in space and the outcome was the same until August 19, 1960. Two dogs, Belka and Strelka, along with a rabbit, 40 mice, 2 rats, some plants and flasks of fruit flies were launched on Sputnik 5. They spent a day in space and all animals, insects and plants returned safely. In 1961, Strelka (which translates to “Little Arrow”) gave birth to six puppies. Nikita Khrushchev gave one of the puppies to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline as a gift.
In April 2008, Russian opened a monument in honor of Laika and her contributions to the space program. The small monument, of a dog standing on a rocket, is located in Moscow and near a military research facility.
Associated Press, “Russia opens monument to Laika, first dog in space,” The Boston Herald, April 11, 2008. Found online here.
Tara Gray, “A Brief History of Animals in Space,” August 2, 2004. Found on NASA’s website.
New York Times, “Laika A U.N. Issue, Uruguayan Says She Starved - Soviet Aide Denies It,” November 21, 1957.
Associated Press, “Traveler in Space: A Little Russian Hunting Dog,” New York Times, November 4, 1957.