On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first animal into space. Laika, a Siberian husky cross, was living as a stray on the streets of Moscow before she was selected and enlisted into the Soviet space program. Scientists looked to the streets in the assumption that stray dogs would be used to experiencing extreme cold and hunger. The name Laika was given to the chosen dog as it is the Russian name for several breeds that are similar to the husky.
At that time, little was known about the effects of spaceflight on living creatures. Laika’s mission was to discover what would happen during an orbit of the Earth aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. This was to be a one-way journey as Laika’s survival was never expected.
Space technician Yevgeniy Shabarov, who helped prepare Laika for her flight, is reported as saying, “After placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.”
It was originally reported that Laika died when she ran out of oxygen on day six, although the Russian government also claimed to have euthanised her before this happened. However, the true time and cause of death were not made public until 2002. Laika had actually died within hours of take-off due to overheating. She would have suffered.
Laika’s death was an inevitable part of the Sputnik 2 mission and subsequently sparked debate around the world on the ethical use of animals in science. Laika’s contribution to the space race in providing scientists with important information about the biological effects of space travel will never be forgotten. While we look to the future, especially in terms of technological and medical advances, we should take a moment to remember all the animals who helped us get to where we are today.