Click Laika, Moscow, November 1957

11 July 2019 Mick Epis

Click Laika, Moscow, November 1957

Laika, Moscow, November 1957

POOR LAIKA. She was a mongrel stray wandering the mean streets of Moscow in the long-ago greyed-out 1950s when the authorities found her.

With impeccable Russian logic, they reasoned that any dog who could survive on her own there had to be hardy – and so it was that Laika found herself on a mission to space. “Laika” translates as “barker”, and is also a term for the hunting dogs common in northern Russia.

In October 1957 the Soviets had shocked the world by launching Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, which kicked off the Space Race. The 40th anniversary of the October Revolution was looming, and President Nikita Khrushchev wanted something special – so Sputnik II was born in haste.

Three dogs were trained for the mission – Albina and Mushka were the others – but Laika became the Muttnik in the Sputnik. Much of the training was habituating her to a confined space.

A million questions had no answers in those days; one was whether a living being could survive take-off. Laika answered that with a resounding woof. 

Telemetry on Earth read the data from medical sensors attached to her. Her heart rate reached three times its norm during take-off – who wouldn’t be excited? – and the same again when weightlessness was achieved.

In the cabin Laika was fed in jelly form, while a carbon dioxide filter, an oxygen generator and a fan kept her comfy. But the fan wasn’t big enough, and in a cruel irony, it was heat, not cold, that did her in. Nevertheless, as the first animal to orbit Earth, Laika had taken one giant leap for mankind.

Not that the Russians let on – they maintained the fiction for days that Laika was still going for a walk around Earth, when in fact she had perished no more than seven hours and four orbits into the trip. Laika-branded cigarettes were issued. The truth took decades to emerge.

And if you shed a tear for Laika, spare one for the 18 astronauts/cosmonauts who have died on space missions, and a further 13 while training. Apollo 15’s crew left the Fallen Astronaut memorial on the moon in 1971 – without NASA’s permission – in memory of those who perished. Laika is immortalised at Moscow’s Monument to the Conquerors of Space.
In 1963, meanwhile, the French launched a cat into space. Of course they did. After 13 minutes up there, which probably wasn’t long enough for a nap, Félicette landed on her feet and lived to tell the tale to other felines. Of course she did.

By Mick Epis

» First appeared in Ed#591