Man's Best Friend: The Soviet Missions that Sent Dogs Into Space
Updated: Mar 4
Animals have always assisted man in his understanding of both himself and the world he lives in. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov explored classical conditioning in his experiment using dogs. The first hot air balloon passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. Dolly the sheep was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, and Erwin Schrödinger used a theoretical cat to explain quantum mechanics. A dog named Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth in 1957. The missions that sent dogs, as well as monkeys, rodents, plants, and a myriad of other organisms had a very important purpose: Determine whether human spaceflight is feasible. If these missions failed, both the United States and Soviet Union would have to reconsider the importance of manned spaceflight in the Cold War.
Matchbook that reads "First Passenger Satellite (Sputnik) - Dog Laika" (collectorsweekly)
The first living things were actually sent into space almost a decade before Laika became the first to orbit the Earth— a jar of fruit flies was sent into space by the United States on a captured German V-2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The first mammal in space was Albert II, a Rhesus monkey who died upon impact at reentry (the launch of his predecessor, Albert I, was unsuccessful). While the US sent monkeys into space in place of humans during the 1950s and '60s, the USSR used dogs. The space program had slots for at least 57 dogs but only about 30 missions took place, and a handful flew more than once. Dogs were chosen over other animals because scientists believed dogs were well suited to endure long periods of inactivity. These dogs were also strays who had already learned to endure harsh conditions of hunger and cold temperatures. Furthermore, female dogs were preferred over male dogs due to both their temperament and the pressure suit they would wear during flight (the waste collection device was designed to work with only females). Training included standing still for long periods of time, being placed in simulators that acted like a rocket during launch, riding in centrifuges, and being kept in progressively smaller cages to prepare for confinement in the module. Those who were slated to fly were also fed a nutritious jelly-like protein that was high in fiber.
A series of suborbital flights were flown to an altitude of 62 miles (100 km) on R-1 rockets from 1951 to 1956. These dogs wore pressure suits with acrylic glass bubble helmets. 11 R-2A flights flew to an altitude of 120 miles (200 km) from 1957 to 1960 and 3 final flights were made to an altitude of 280 miles (450 km) on R-5A rockets in 1958. The R-2A and R-5A missions had the dogs contained in a pressure cabin. The first dogs in space were Dezik and Tsygan ("Gypsy"), which made their suborbital flight on July 22, 1951. They traveled to a maximum altitude of 68 miles (110 km) and were the first mammals successfully recovered from spaceflight. Dezik flew again a week later with Lisa ("Fox") but both died when the parachute failed to deploy during reentry. Afterwards, Soviet space scientist Anatoli Blagonravov adopted Tsygan. He would later be one of the key scientist responsible for Sputnik and represented the Soviet Union on the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. During another flight, Albina and Tsyganka were both ejected out of their capsule at an altitude of 53 miles (85 km) and landed safely. Albina was one of the dogs shortlisted for Sputnik 2, the first orbital mission of a living creature. Otvazhnaya ("Brave One") made her flight on July 2, 1959 with a rabbit named Marfusha ("Little Martha") and another dog named Snezhinka ("Snowflake"). She made another 5 flights between 1959 and 1960.
Tsygan and Desik in their spacecraft (russianlife.com )
These dogs also had a tendency to run away before launch. Smelaya ("Brave") was scheduled to fly in September but ran away the day before launch. Fortunately for the program she was found and flew her mission with Malyshka ("Baby"), but both of them perished when the parachute failed to deploy. Bobik ran away a few days before her flight on September 15, 1951 and was not found. Instead, a replacement named ZIB (a Russian acronym for "substitute for missing Bobik") was found running around the barracks and used instead.
Laika, the most famous of the space-bound canines, was a mostly-Siberian husky rescued from the streets of Moscow. She was originally named Kudryavka ("Little Curly") but became internationally known as Laika because "laika" is a Russian word for several breeds of dog similar to a husky. According to some accounts, it was technicians who renamed her from Kudryavka to Laika due to her loud barking (the literal translation of "laika" is "barker"). She was also known as Zhuchka ("Little Bug") and Limonchik ("Little Lemon"). American reporters had a tendency to call her "Muttnik", a play-on-words of Sputnik. The three-year-old mongrel became the first living creature to orbit the Earth on November 3, 1957 as part of the Sputnik 2 mission.
Laika in her Sputnik 2 compartment before launch (space.com )
Following the success of Sputnik 1 the month before, Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted an orbital launch on November 7 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. This mission would be Sputnik 3, which launched in December. Since there was so little time to build the spacecraft, Sputnik 2 was a rush job with most parts of the spacecraft being constructed from rough sketches. The idea of sending a dog into orbit was to satisfy Khrushchev's demand of a "space spectacular". Unfortunately, a re-entry strategy could not be worked out in time for her launch— the dog was to be sent on a one-way trip. Three dogs were trained for this flight: Laika, Albina, and Mushka. Laika was the "flight dog" while Albina was her backup and Mushka was a "control dog", meaning she stayed on the ground and tested instrumentation and life support. Before her launch, one of the scientists working the flight took Laika home to play with his children. She was placed in the capsule of Sputnik 2 on October 31 and a hose connected to a heater was used to keep her warm. Although the exact time of launch varies, it is accepted the mission lifted off between 5:30 am or 7:22 am Moscow time. After reaching orbit, the nose cone was jettisoned successfully but the Block A core did not separate as planned, preventing the thermal control system from working correctly. This caused the cabin temperature to rise to 104 °F (40 °C). Laika was stressed and agitated.
She died between five and seven hours into the flight. Soviet scientists had planned to euthanize her by poisoning her food but did not. For a number of years after the flight, it was believed she had died from lack of oxygen when the life support system batteries ran out. Finally in 2002, the truth came out when Dimitri Malashenkov, one of the scientists who worked on the mission, revealed that Laika had died during her fourth orbit of the Earth from stress and overheating. Sputnik 2 burned up in the upper atmosphere on April 14, 1958.
Laika's fate has since been used to debate the ethics of animal testing in the advancement of science. Animal rights groups in the west protested at Soviet embassies and in outside the United Nations in New York. In the Soviet Union, however, there was less controversy and neither the media nor the public questioned the morality of sending dogs into space. It was not until the collapse of the USSR in 1989 that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed his regret for his decision.
"Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. 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."
Since then, Laika has been memorialized in statues and plaques across Russia as well as through films, stamps, envelops, and even cigarettes.
Statue commemorating Laika's sacrifice in Moscow (tripadvisor.com)
Another orbital flight attempt involving Bars ("Snow Leopard") and Lisichka ("Little Fox") ended in disaster when the Vostok rocket exploded 28.5 seconds into launch on July 28, 1960. Other dogs who flew suborbital missions were Dymka ("Smoky"), Modnitsa ("Fashionable"), and Kozyavka ("Little Gnat"), as well as at least four others. Two of these others were lost.
The next orbital mission was flown by Belka ("Squirrel" or "Whitey") and Strelka ("Little Arrow") and lasted roughly a day. Korabl-Sputnik 2 (incorrectly known as Sputnik 5 in the West) , a test flight of the Vostok spacecraft that would later carry the first cosmonauts, launched on August 19, 1960. The pair was accompanied by a gray rabbit, 42 mice, 2 rats, flies, plants, and fungi. Everyone survived the trip, making them the first living creatures to survive orbital flight. Strelka went on to have 6 puppies with a male dog Pushok who participated in many ground based experiments. One of these puppies was named Pushinka ("Fluffy"), who was later gifted to American President John F. Kennedy by Khrushchev as a token of goodwill. She made the White House her home and had puppies of her own with Charlie, the Kennedy's Welsh terrier. The bodies of both Strelka and Belka are now preserved and on display at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.
Belka and Strelka in their spacesuits (memolands.com)
Perhaps the most harrowing of these missions was the flight of Dama ("Queen of checkers") and Krasavka ("Little Beauty") on December 22, 1960. They, along with some mice, were supposed to make an orbital flight as part of the Vostok program but the launch was riddled with equipment failures: First, the upper-stage rocket failed and the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere after reaching a suborbital apogee of 133 miles (214 km). The craft was supposed to eject the dogs and self-destruct but the ejection seat failed and the primary destruct mechanism shorted out. The animals were still intact when the capsule hit the snowy surface and by this point, the backup self-destruct mechanism had begun its 60-hour timer. The recovery team had to quickly locate it. Snow had buried the spacecraft during its first day back on Earth and there was insufficient remaining daylight to disarm the self-destruct mechanism and open the capsule. No signs of life were detected but on the second day, the dogs were heard barking as the capsule was opened. Krasavka was later adopted by Oleg Gazenko. She went on to have puppies and live with him and his family for 14 years. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev wanted to make this story public but was prohibited due to state censorship.
3 more Korabl-Sputnik flights took place until March 1961. Korabl-Sputnik 3 saw Pchyolka ("Little Bee"), Mushka ("Little Fly"), and other plants and animals orbit the Earth on December 1, 1960. However, the spacecraft was intentionally destroyed by remote self-destruction when the retrorockets failed to shut off to prevent it from being captured and inspected by foreign powers. Mushka was one of the 3 dogs trained for Sputnik 2 but did not fly because she refused to eat properly. Chernushka ("Blackie") flew on Korabl-Sputnik 4 on March 9, 1961 with the anthropomorphic test dummy Ivan Ivanovich (see "Spaceflight for Dummies: Ivan Ivanovich and the Space Mannequins"). During their descent to the ground, Ivan was ejected out of the capsule because the Vostok had no soft-landing capabilities . Chernushka was recovered unharmed inside the capsule. Lastly, Zvezdochka ("Starlet") flew on Korabl-Sputnik 5 on March 25, 1961. She was named by Yuri Gagarin and flew with Ivan in the final practice mission before Gagarin's April 12 orbital flight. Again, the dummy was ejected during descent and Zvezdochka was recovered safely.
Strelka, Zvezdochka, Chernushka, and Belka in 1960 (www.rbth.com)
Only one mission sent dogs into space following the success of Korabl-Sputnik 5 and the subsequent manned missions. Veterok ("Light Breeze") and Ugolyok ("Ember") launched on February 22, 1966 onboard Cosmos 110 and spent 21 days in orbit before returning on March 16. This flight broke a spaceflight duration record that was not broken by humans until Soyuz 11 in June 1971. It is still the longest spaceflight by non-humans.
Veterok and Ugolyok outside before their mission (sciencesource.com )
We can attribute the success of manned spaceflight to the flights of Laika, Strelka and Belka, and all other dogs of the early Soviet space program. Their scientific and cultural impact truly earns them the title "man's best friend".
 The Korabl-Sputnik missions were test flights of the Vostok spacecraft and not part of the Vostok program. Due to strong Soviet secrecy in the early days of space exploration, the West labelled these missions as just "Sputnik" because they were Earth-orbital.
 The Vostok spacecraft had no soft landing capabilities, meaning the cosmonaut onboard would be seriously injured (or potentially die) when the spacecraft hit the ground. This meant he or she had to eject from the capsule and coast to the ground under their own parachute.
Author's Note: When I first started writing this post I had no idea so many dogs had flown as far back as the early 50s— I was only aware of those who made orbital flights. This was definitely one of the most fun topics to learn and write about and I hope you enjoyed reading it too. Remember to like and share this post and thanks for reading!
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