November 3, 2007

November 3 | Laika

1954? - November 3, 1957: Age 3?

Laika was a stray dog found wandering in the street in Moscow. She was one of several dogs chosen and trained to be part of Soviet attempts to send a living being into space.

In the 1950s and 1960s one of the results the mutual hostility between the USSR and USA (the Cold War) was a passionate competition to be first into space. The Soviet Union got an early start with Sputnik in October 1957: the first successful launch and orbit of a satellite in space. The event shocked the USA inspired the world. Eager to follow up this early success with another "first", Russian leader Kruschev ordered that a second satellite be launched to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution just one month later. The second satellite, Sputnik 2, was to carry a dog in order to measure the effects of space travel on a living being. Sputnik 2 was rushed into production.

Laika is in fact the name of a group of Russian husky breeds; Laika herself was a mongrel (husky and terrier, probably) and called various nicknames by her human friends: Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug) and Limonchik (Little Lemon). Three dogs were trained for the flight, and their training included long confinement progressively smaller cages, centrifuges, and a diet of high-nutrition gel. Laika was chosen for the mission and placed into the capsule three days prior to launch. Her bodily functions were to be carefully monitored. Just before liftoff, she was carefully groomed. It was the last living contact she would experience.

During launch itself, her heart rate more than doubled and her respiration tripled. After launch the nose cone separated successfully but another section of the rocket did not, and this prevented the heating system from operating correctly. Her pulse rate did not return to normal for three hours after launch, showing how much stress she was under. She was agitated but eating her food. However her life signs disappeared in a few hours. She probably died from stress and overheating.

The Russians had never planned to retrieve Laika from space; the idea was to euthanize her with a poisoned serving of food once her experiments were over. For years some of them insisted that this is how she died; other Russians stated that she had suffocated. The truth of her death was not made public until 2002, and in the excitement of the "success" of the mission it seemed as though few humans cared. There were a few protests in the West, virtually none in Russia. In 1998, more than 40 years later, the scientist to chose and trained Laika publicly expressed regret for his actions: "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."

Click here to read the original article in the New York Times reporting on Sputnik 2, reproduced in a 2002 article. Click here to read about all the space dogs and their fates.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times

Note: Yes, today I have reported two deaths (see also Olympe de Gouge). That is because for some reason yesterday I started thinking about Laika, and decided to find out her death date in order to write about her. After completing the entry on de Gouge, I looked up Laika and was surprised to see that her death date is today! Having already published a good post on de Gouge I decided to simply add another entry for Laika. Given de Gouge's passionate defence of the oppressed and vulnerable, I believe she would have approved.

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