Laika, the unsung hero

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The first astronaut to be sent into space

Laika, a three-year old, terrier-mix was picked up off of the cold Russian streets and became the first astronaut to orbit the Earth.

On November 3, 1957, she was sent into her first space mission, only to die a few hours later. So why did the Soviets decide to send a dog into space?

The decision to launch Laika was decided for two main reasons – scientific and (as always) political.  The scientific reason was that no one knew how a living being would cope in space (let alone a human), and observing animals in space would provide some ground-breaking knowledge on this. So why not pick a dog off of the streets? They are already used to the extreme cold weather in Russia.  The second (political) reason, was that Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, wanted a ‘spectacular’ space mission to be launched on November 3, 1957, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.

So, in the name of science, Laika was launched on a one-way trip on board Sputnik 2 in November 1957. Only, the Soviets didn’t announce that the trip was “one-way” until she was already in orbit. This outraged many people across the world! The Soviets hadn’t figured out how to land the shuttle. While it was first said that Laika died after six(ish) days in orbit, it has more recently  been revealed that she died from overheating and panic just a few hours after entering space.

Her space “living” conditions

She was placed in her restrictive module  (cage) several days before the shuttle launch. Then she was covered in an alcohol solution and painted with iodine in several spots (so sensors could be placed on her) right before take-off.  The sensors were to monitor her heartbeat, blood pressure, and other bodily functions to better understand any physical changes that might occur in space.

Though Laika’s module was restrictive, it was padded and had just enough room for her to lay down or stand as she wished.  She also had access to special, gelatinous, space food made for her. It has also been discovered that she was chained to prevent her
turning around. Inside the shuttle, there was a carbon dioxide absorbing device to prevent a build-up of this gas, as well as an oxygen generator to give her fresh air. There was also a fan that would automatically activate to cool the dog when the capsule’s
temperature exceeded 59 degrees (F).

In the days preceding, the dogs were kept in gradually smaller cages in order for them to adapt to the tight conditions of the “Sputnik 2”. Overall, three dogs were trained, but only Laika was chosen.

Death in space

The sensors that were placed on Laika showed that her pulse was elevated during the launch, as could be expected. Only when the shuttle started to lose gravity did her heart rate decrease. It took her three times longer in space than when she was preparing on the ground. This only further proved how much stress the dog was under!

After seven hours, no life signs were found. Laika had passed away when the temperature and humidity started to increase. Between the overheating and stress, her body just gave out.

Laika’s “coffin” circled the Earth 2,570 times and finally burned up in the Earth’s
atmosphere on  April 1958.

On November 3, she will have passed away 55 years ago… In honor of Laika, please share this story with your animal loving friends!

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