Among the many noteworthy achievements of the Soviet Union’s space program was the first launch of an animal – a dog named Laika – into earth orbit on the world’s second successful satellite. “Muttnik” wasn’t the only dog star: over 50 canine cosmonauts helped set the stage for the USSR‘s side of the great Space Race. This is their story.
Cold War, Hot Dogs
(image via: Telstar Logistics)
World War II had ended and the Cold War had just begun – and both the United States and the Soviet Union worked feverishly to establish viable ballistic missile and manned space programs with the help of captured German rocket scientists. While the Americans used captured V2 rockets to launch fruit flies, a monkey and a mouse into suborbital space between 1947 and the summer of 1950, the USSR decided dogs would be the ideal space-pioneering animals.
Dogs could be trained to deal with long periods of inactivity required in preparation for a launch and would also tolerate wearing a cumbersome space suit in a small confined space. As well, stray dogs were chosen for their perceived hardiness and females were preferred due to simpler sanitation solutions.
In early 1951, two dogs named Tsygan (above, top) and Dezik rode a Soviet-built copy of the V2 rocket 110 km (68.35 miles) into space. The pressurized capsule containing the dogs parachuted back to Earth and both Dezik and Tsygan were none the worse for wear. At least, for the moment: Dezik did not survive his next mission later that year. Both dogs can be seen today, stuffed and mounted, at the Cosmonaut Memorial Museum in Moscow.
Giant Leaps For Mankind
The officially recognized border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space is 100 km, or about 62 miles, and between 1951 and 1956 the Soviet Union conducted 15 launches with 9 different dogs to at least that altitude. Another 11 launches to 200 km (124 miles) took place between 1957 and 1960. In 1958, three intrepid dog-monauts soared to 450 km (280 miles). Not all the canine crewmen survived these suborbital flights but the vast majority did, paving the way for the manned missions of the 1960s.
Not only did Soviet space dogs succeed superbly in pushing the envelope of early space exploration by making suborbital space flights in the 1950s, many of them ascended in pairs such as Lisa and Ryzhik, Smelaya and Malyshka, and Bolik and ZIB. That odd last name is an acronym for “Zamena ischeznuvshemu Boliku” or “Substitute for Missing Bolik.” It seems the real Bolik ran away just days before his scheduled flight and a local stray was drafted as an instant replacement.
(image via: Realmagick)
Nearly 30 missions over a 10-year period may seem a lot for the Soviets, whose reputation for risk-taking and less than thorough testing is perhaps overstated. Consider that the United States launched a chimpanzee named Ham into space on January 31, 1961. Ham’s mission was followed a mere 3 months later by the first launch of an American astronaut, Alan Shepard, and both missions were suborbital.
The October 1957 launch into orbit of Sputnik 1 shocked the world in general and the United States in particular – the Space Race was on! It wouldn’t be until January 31 of 1958 that the USA was able to place their first satellite, Explorer 1, into Earth orbit. The success of Explorer 1 was somewhat overshadowed by the startling success of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2 which launched on November 3, 1957. Not only did the rather large satellite achieve orbit, it carried a passenger: Laika (Russian for “Barker”), a 6 kg (13 lb) female stray with distinctive floppy ears.
The American press had a field day with Laika’s successful launch, dubbing both the dog and capsule “Muttnik”. The embarrassing first attempt by the USA to launch a satellite – the televised launch pad explosion of Vanguard TV3 in December of 1957 – was ridiculed as Flopnik, Oopsnik and Kaputnik to name a few.
Laika’s mission was intended to last 10 days but unfortunately, the heat shielding on Sputnik 2’s exterior was damaged during the launch phase and temperatures inside the capsule soared to 40 °C (104 °F). Though telemetry received at mission control indicated that Laika had calmed down somewhat from the stress of the launch and was eating food, by 5 to 7 hours into the flight life signs were no longer being received.
Laika’s fate was not fully disclosed until October of 2002, almost 45 years after the mission and over a decade after the USSR itself ceased to exist. At the time, fledgling animal rights groups protested the concept of sending a dog into space with no thought of retrieval. It seems even the scientists who planned Laika’s mission had qualms over it. In 1998 one of these scientists, Oleg Gazenko, expressed his regret by stating “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.” Today, Laika’s heroic yet tragic life has made her both a symbol of courage and a figure of sadness.
Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Arrow”) have also made the leap to pop culture, though their tail, er, tale lacks the tragic component of Laika’s short but vivid life. Belka and Strelka’s adventure began on August 19, 1960, securely seated inside Sputnik 5) along with 1 rabbit, 2 rats, 42 mice, an unknown number of flies, plus some plants and fungi.
(image via: Blog Serius)
The launch was uneventful and the capsule orbited the Earth for one day before safely parachuting down to the welcoming steppes of Soviet Central Asia. Belka, Strelka, and their fellow biota were the first creatures to orbit the Earth and return alive. Preserved for prosperity in Russia are the taxidermised Belka and Strelka along with their dented but undaunted space capsule.
Belka and Strelka star in not one, but TWO animated feature films. One is titled “The Real Adventures of Belka and Strelka”, a portion of which can be seen here:
The other boasts a higher caliber of animation (think Rango) and the wonders of 3D. Touted as “an epic space adventure across the third dimension”, Space Dogs 3D was released in 2010. You can check out the trailer here:
The Ruff Stuff
Though Laika may be the best known of the nearly 60 Soviet space dogs and Belka & Strelka have been immortalized in film, others have also achieved a measure of fame. Last (literally) but certainly not least, are Veterok and Ugolyok. Launched on February 22, 1966, the pair spent 22 days orbiting the Earth orbit before landing safely on March 16: their endurance record would not be surpassed until June of 1973, by human astronauts aboard Skylab 2. Veterok and Ugolyok would be the last of a long line of Soviet space dogs going back over 16 years.
(image via: SFF Audio)
The USSR may have lost the Space Race but it was the fault of their hardware, not their “software”: loyal, hardworking cosmonauts both canine and human. Through their – dare I say it – dogged determination, the Soviet space dogs helped make the airless void above a safer place for their best friends… us.