Remembering Laika, the First Dog in Space

In 1957, a dog boarded a Soviet spacecraft and blasted into the heavens. Despite the fanfare, this was nothing to celebrate.


I’m not sure how a tone of outrage in this article will do us any good — it probably won’t. But something very much like despair and frustration will undoubtedly creep into this story of Laika, the famous “muttnik” sent into orbit in 1957. She was the first living creature in space. Then, five hours after accomplishing this feat, she became the first creature to die in space.

Before we give in completely to the moody blues, let’s try to imagine Laika, the hapless stray, before Soviet scientists found her in October 1957, just four weeks from Sputnik 2’s launch. Let’s do our best to recapture a bit of what it was like to pass Laika on the streets of Moscow before fame was thrust upon her in the name of — what again? Ah, yes. History. Khrushchev. Eisenhower. The size of their, er, “tasks”: The Cold War.

All contemporary reports tell us Laika was affable. On November 13, 1957, The New York Times reported she was “phlegmatic” — or easygoing, reliable, and observant — which in today’s Myers-Briggs world would set her on course to thrive in a small corporation as an office manager, had canines any need to be more efficient at doting on us and looking wistful.

Laika’s pedigree is a mystery. She had a Husky‘s elongated facial features: a narrow muzzle, somewhat almond-shaped eyes. Her body type and coat were more terrier, as were her forward-sloping ears. It’s said she was chosen by Soviet scientists because, in photos, she exuded warmth. And, of course, public relations was Laika’s job number one.

Of the thousands of Laika pictures in circulation, my favorite is an illustration that does a poor job rendering what she actually looked like. This is appropriate somehow. The image is for a brand of cigarettes, named for Laika, and sold in Europe to coincide with Sputnik 2. The graphic’s main flaw is how it shortens the mongrel’s snout, making her look more purebred — more terrier, more regal, more “pride of the Soviets” — and ultimately less true to our hero. But it remains my favorite image because of the resonant way it captures the delusional and tacky misguidedness of some of our own species’s biggest ideas. Here we are, humans — it doesn’t really matter if we’re Russians or Americans — knowingly euthanizing an animal who, like an infant, biologically entered the world looking to us for protection. And why did we do it? Discovery! Progress! For me, this illustration of a less-mangy Laika proudly surveying her achievements (from beyond the grave, cough-cough) represents our habit of reaching for simplistic “up notes” in the little hymnals we like to sing in praise of our worst mistakes. That’s capital “H” History, I guess. And it’s more than Soviet kitsch, this drawing of Laika. It’s the perfect icon for our shared cognitive dissonance about our role as this world’s rational animal.

We can honor Laika with plaques and cigarette brands and postage stamps and 900-word tributes for online magazines (guilty!). But none of these things has anything to do with her. This busywork is all about us, these prizes and literal effigies (smoke ’em if you got ’em!). And what are we commemorating? Our own flawed image of ourselves: more noble and ultimately less true than the drawing of Laika on a pack of smokes. What should Laika mean to us? To be human is not the same as being humane.

Though we try, despite ourselves. Vladimir Yazdovsky, founder of Soviet space biomedicine, later wrote about the four weeks that elapsed between finding Laika and her launch into space. Days before Sputnik 2 blasted off, he brought Laika home to play with his children. This is likely the only time in her three years of life that she got to experience the pleasures and comforts of family and human benevolence. “Laika was quiet and charming,” he said. “I wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live.”

This much everyone involved in Sputnik 2 knew from the outset: Laika’s days were numbered. For decades, Soviet officials insisted Laika survived the mission’s first days, dying on the fourth when a battery malfunction caused the capsule to overheat. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an even grimmer reality emerged. At the World Space Congress that year, scientist Dimitri Malashenkov presented a report detailing the gruesome first hours after launch. As the capsule reached speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour, the eleven-pound mongrel’s heart failed. As many as seven hours passed before her vital signs completely ceased to register back in Moscow, at ground control. Laika’s death took only a little less time than it would for a nonstop flight from Washington to reach Moscow. She died an anguished death in an aircraft designed to rocket above our planet and then disappear like a disposable coffee cup.

Oleg Gazenko was one of the scientists who worked closely with Laika to train her for the launch. In 1997, a memorial was erected in Laika’s memory at Space City, outside Moscow. This was a black day for Gazenko, who told reporters, “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 did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

There are no up notes to end on here.

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