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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Laika: The Tragic Space Pioneer

We once had a dog named Laika. My mother named her after the first dog who went to space. That was the only thing I knew about the name and the dog. There were very few information about this space dog aside from those that say Laika was from the Soviet Union and she was a space pioneer.

Laika the Space Pioneer

Now that information is readily available, I found the real story of Laika which was bigger than what I previously knew. She turned out to be a space heroine but a tragic one at that. She's a victim of the space race between the two world powers – the US and USSR which were trying to outdo each other by sending a human being to space.   

Laika was born during this period in the streets of Moscow where she lived as a stray. One day she was scooped out of the streets and became part of the Soviet space program.  The Soviets used dogs as their specimen to test the limits a living being could take when launched into space. They preferred stray dogs like Laika because these are used to extreme conditions like cold and hunger. 

Laika in her Sputnik 2 compartment
In October 1957, the first man made satellite was successfully launched to space. Then Soviet Nikita Khrushchev wanted to send another satellite to space this time with a living passenger.  The catch is that the space team only had a month to prepare for the launch.  

The task of being the first living creature to space went to Laika who was described by her handlers as "quiet and charming".  She was launched to space in November 3, 1957 and survived the launch.  It was only after the dog went into orbit that the Soviet scientists told the world that it was a one way trip for Laika and they do not have the technology yet to bring the poor thing back to Earth.  Laika was sent to orbit by the people she trusted who knew that she will perish there.

Initially, the Soviets told the world that Laika stayed alive for a week and she died peacefully when she was euthanized before the batteries in her shuttle went off.  She was hailed a heroine in her country and its allies.  



However, in 2002 new information came out about what really happened to the little space pioneer. For one, Laika didn't survive as long as the Soviets initially reported.  Within hours, the intrepid space dog died a painful death.  

Although her capsule was equipped with fans to cool the dog once temperature inside reached 15 degrees Celsius, the equipment failed due to damage during the launch. The little dog was already doomed. The temperature rose to more than 40 degrees and poor Laika died due to heat exhaustion and distress.   

In a later interview, one of the scientists who sent her to space said, "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." (wikipedia)

After orbiting Earth 2,570 times in 162 days, Sputnik 2 eventually fell out of its orbit.  On April 14, 1958 it entered our atmosphere and disintegrated along with the remains of its lone tragic passenger.

In 1997, a monument for Russian conquerors of space was erected in Star City, the training grounds of cosmonauts. In one panel, peering out of her capsule was a representation of Laika, the space dog.

Conquerors of Space


In 2008, Russian officials unveiled a memorial for Laika also in Star City near the building where the dog was prepared for her historic flight, It featured a dog standing on a rocket.

Laika's monument in Moscow

Laika's contribution to space flight is not her only legacy.  The furor over the fact that she was purposely sent to space to die sparked an outrage and demands for review of policies on the use of animals for scientific research.

As for our dog Laika, she stayed with us for 14 years.  She came to us as a puppy and one time, we thought we had lost her.  It turned out that she slept under one of the furniture and cannot be easily seen.  She had three sets of puppies but we do not have any of her descendants anymore.

Our Laika was a good guard dog and a loyal one too.  Although she was also a mongrel like the little dog she was named after, she was an affectionate one and was always happy to welcome us home.

One night, when my mother came from work, Laika who was not feeling well looked at her pleadingly.  My mother took the poor dog's head in her hands and at that moment, Laika breathed her last.  I will never forget that dog.  Our Laika may not have conquered the stars but she'll always stay with me.

I do not own the photos on this post. I got them from Google.


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