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Laika (First Dog in Orbit)

Before man left Earth's gravitational field to begin exploring the reaches of outer space, our canine companions were sent up to pave the way for human astronauts. A three-year old Russian stray found wandering the streets of Moscow was the first canine selected for an orbital space mission. Laika, whose name in Russian means "Barker", was a female mongrel weighing between 11 and 13 pounds. Given many nicknames by Russian personnel, the American Press adopted the moniker "Muttnik", to go along with the craft in which Laika had been chosen to go into orbit: Sputnik 2.

Laika in Sputnik 2, 1957

Sputnik 2 had not been designed to be retrievable and Laika's death was a foregone conclusion. Prior to the launch, Laika was taken home by one of the Russian scientists for some playtime with his children. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky has written, "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."

While seemingly cruel to send Laika to her death, scientists felt it was a necessary precursor to sending humans into space as it was believed back then that humans would survive neither the launch itself nor travel in outer space.

To prepare Laika for the small confines of Sputnik 2's miniscule cabin, she was kept in smaller and smaller cages for up to twenty days at a time. She spent time in centrifuges that simulated a rocket's acceleration during launch. She was placed inside machines that mimicked noises that would be heard inside the spacecraft. For feeding purposes, Laika learned to eat a high-nutrition gel, which would become her food while in orbit.

Prior to Sputnik 2's launch on November 3, 1957, sensors were placed on Laika's body for monitoring of her bodily functions. Before the launch, the mongrel's heartbeat registered at 103 beats per minute. This rate more than doubled to 240 beats per minute (4 beats every second) at the time of early acceleration. It took three hours for Laika's pulse rate to return to a normal 102 beats per minute, whereas in early ground tests it had taken roughly an hour to do so. This is a good indication of the stress that Laika was under. Tests have shown that she was, however, eating her food.

Upon reaching orbit, the "Block A" core did not separate from Sputnik 2 as had been intended. This equipment malfunction caused the thermal control system to stop operating correctly. As a by-product of the equipment failure, thermal insulation was also torn loose, bringing the temperature in the cabin of the spacecraft to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Signs of life within the cabin were no longer detectable after between five and seven hours into the flight.

Although it had been previously reported that Laika died from lack of oxygen, or had been euthanised before the oxygen ran out, the true cause of her death was finally made public in 2002: overheating along with stress, according to Dr. Dimitri Malashenkov. Laika's time in orbit did however prove to scientists that it was entirely possible for a human occupant to survive a launch into orbit and withstand weightlessness, thus paving the way for the men and women that continue to explore space to this day.

A monument to Laika was unveiled by Russian officials in April of 2008 close to the Moscow military research facility which was in charge of Laika's preparation to become the first canine in orbital space. Quite appropriately, it shows the dog standing atop a rocket in what looks to me like the palm of a hand. You did well, our furry friend!

Author Resource: Written by Starr Hendon


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