She didn't have a name when they found her on the streets of Moscow, but she became known as Laika, which means "barker." On Nov. 3, 1957, this mild-tempered mutt entered the history books and the hearts of millions, when she blasted off from a Russian rocket base and orbited the Earth — the first living being to accomplish this feat.
At the time, the Soviet space program was the envy of the rest of the world. Just a month earlier, it had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and Americans were a bit unnerved by the thought of a Russian-built sphere racing overhead, bleeping in triumph.
When the Soviets announced the bigger-and-better Sputnik II a month later, they lapped NASA again, especially since this one would carry a passenger.
Sergei Korolov, head of the Soviet rocket program, had designed a space capsule for a dog, complete with air conditioning. It had a feeding apparatus to provide in-flight liquefied kibble, and employed a hindquarters vacuum to whisk away the waste. This would be Laika's capsule — and her coffin.
The program could launch her up, but it didn't know how to get her down.
Laika was not the first dog in space. The Russians ran a large program of canine cosmonauts, starting with Dezik and Lisa in 1951. Bobik was supposed to go up for a suborbital flight the same year, but he ran away a few days before liftoff. He was swapped out with a dog named Zib, but before you think that's a great name for your next dog, it's the initials of the Russian words "Substitute for Missing Bobik."
In 1960, Belka and Strelka were the first dogs to go into orbit and survive. Their instant celebrity status got the full state-sanctioned hero treatment, with children's books, cigarette tins, clocks, dishes and all sorts of trinkets bearing their happy likenesses. Strelka had puppies after her return, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave one to JFK.
The last dogs to go up were Veterok, which meant "Light Breeze," and Ugolyok, "Coal," in 1966. They circled the Earth for 22 days.
Of fate and fame
The Soviets were less than forthcoming about Laika's fate. For many years, program officials insisted that she had been euthanized — presumably by remote control — before her air supply was exhausted. The actual cause of death was probably overheating due to a mechanical malfunction.
It was a one-way trip, and everyone knew it but Laika.
In the book "Space Dogs" by Laurence King, Laika's fate was later regretted.
"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it," said Oleg Gazenko, the lead scientist in the program that put animals in space. "We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."
According to King's account, Laika was a dog "of uncertain heritage — likely part husky, part terrier — but affectionate, patient, and with dark expressive eyes." She liked her handlers, one of whom gave her a kiss on the nose in farewell before they shut the hatch.
Records of the bio-monitors taken on the flight suggest she was scared by the liftoff, but calmed down when she finally hit the apogee of the flight, and was weightless. Floating in her capsule, she had something to eat, and made four orbits before the cabin temperatures reached a fatal high.
In many ways, Laika's life was one of extremes: From starving in the alleys of Moscow to a heroic death above the Earth.
If you wish Laika had known a few moments of everyday joy, take heart: A few days before the mission, one of the scientists took her home to play with his children.
That may have meant more to Laika than anything else in her short life.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks