On This Day in 1957: First Animal in Orbit

On November 3rd 1957, Laika the dog, or Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) as she was formally known, was launched into space by the Soviet Union aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. In doing so, she became the first animal to successfully enter the Earth’s orbit. Although many animals had been sent into space before, including monkeys, mice and other dogs, no mission with an animal on board had been successful in securing a position of orbit up until this point. As such, the mission is regarded as one of the most famous steps in space exploration history.

Like the majority of the dogs sent into space by Soviet scientists, Laika was a stray mongrel who was found wandering the streets of Moscow. Approximately three years old and weighing eleven pounds, she was hastily trained for spaceflight by space-life scientists Vladimir Yazdovsky and Oleg Gazenko, and placed into the capsule of the satellite three days prior to launch on October 31st.  Sputnik 2 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the early morning of the 3rd November. Prior to launch Laika’s fur was coated in a weak alcohol solution and carefully groomed, and the sensor sites on her body prepared with iodine so that her bodily functions could be carefully monitored for the duration of her flight. The Soviets did not prepare a strategy for re-entry due to a lack of time, and though controversial, it was therefore widely accepted that she would perish aboard the flight.

Following lift-off and at peak acceleration, Laika’s respiration rate was three to four times greater than it had been prior to launch. Her heartbeat was recorded as 103 beats/min before launch, but increased to 240 beats/min during early acceleration. This was one of the first indications of the extreme stress that her body was under, with the fault in the thermal control system being largely to blame. For decades Soviet officials claimed that Laika lived for up to a week aboard the spacecraft and died painlessly, however in 2002 Sputnik 2 scientist Dimitri Malashenkov publicly announced that Laika lived for only a few hours after reaching orbit, dying during her fourth circuit around the Earth. The cause of death he attributed to the increased humidity and increased temperature of the cabin to 43 degrees Celsius, with telemetry data from the spacecraft now available to reinforce this diagnosis.

Her journey both proved that a living organism could tolerate a substantial length of time in weightlessness, and that it was possible for them to adapt to the harsh conditions of space habitation

Despite surviving for just a few hours, the information gathered by scientists regarding Laika’s journey into orbit paved the way for human exploration of space. Her journey both proved that a living organism could tolerate a substantial length of time in weightlessness, and that it was possible for them to adapt to the harsh conditions of space habitation. As a result, a number of memorials were established in her honour. In the years immediately following the mission, several countries issued stamps in tribute to her sacrifice and service to science. A statue and plaque dedicated to her legacy can be found in the Russian Cosmonaut training facility in Star City, as well as a monument at the military research facility where staff trained Laika for her flight which features her poised atop a space rocket.

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