As dog lovers, it’s difficult to look into the eyes of our beloved, devoted pets and imagine launching them into orbit.
Our dogs are highly intelligent, sensitive creatures, but they’re not rocket scientists (though border collie guardians may disagree). From our modern-day perspective, the practice of sending dogs to space can seem troubling and sad. Still, the story of dogs in space is fascinating. These dog adventurers paved the Milky Way for humankind’s exploration of the final frontier.
Dogs in Space: Canine Stars of the Great Unknown
Long before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard became the first and second men in space, respectively, dogs had orbited Earth as part of tests conducted by the Soviet space program.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union used animals to gather data about the effects of space travel on living beings before sending humans into orbit, with the U.S. using monkeys as test subjects in high-speed flights as early as 1947.
According to NASA historians, the Soviet Union chose to use dogs instead of monkeys because dogs were thought to be more trainable and more suited to the confinement of a spaceship. They were also far more readily available; the majority of Soviet space dogs were picked up as strays. Dogs are hardy, malleable, and trusting, and their bodily systems are not too different from humans’, so they made excellent candidates for space travel.
Laika: The First Martyr of Space Travel
On November 3, 1957, a small terrier mix named Laika blasted into orbit aboard Sputnik 2 and became the first living creature to orbit Earth. Sadly, she was also the first living creature to die in orbit: Laika’s capsule overheated mere hours into her space flight. Although the Soviet space program hid details of her demise for years, the truth is, she was never expected to make it home.
In a memoir written decades later, a scientist who worked on Sputnik 2 wrote about taking Laika home to play with his kids before her flight because he “wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live.”
Today, Laika remains a fabled hero in history and space lore, appearing on postage stamps and in children’s books as a symbol of Russia’s advances in space and beyond. She also has a place in pop culture, with a graphic novel and several songs written about her flight. I dare you to listen to “Space Doggity” by Jonathan Coulton without crying—I can’t do it.
Belka and Strelka: The Returning HeroesBelka and Strelka were the first dog astronauts to successfully return from orbit, and their flight aboard Sputnik 5 in 1960 made them worldwide stars. After their historic flight, Belka and Strelka retired from space travel, but their work in international relations didn’t end: Strelka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which was presented to John F. Kennedy and family as a gift. You can still “meet” Belka and Strelka in taxidermied form today as they tour the world in space travel exhibitions.
Comet and Shutka: Siberian Survivors
Comet and Shutka are remembered for surviving a failed mission to orbit. Their rocket was launched on December 22, 1960, but a mechanical malfunction sent it tumbling back to earth. Comet and Shutka’s insulated enclosure landed in the Siberian wilderness, where they were trapped for four days in sub-zero temperatures before a search crew found them on Christmas day.
Remarkably, both dogs survived the ordeal. Little is known of Shutka’s life after her dramatic journey, but Comet went on to live many happy years as the adopted pet of an aviation scientist.
Veterok and Ugolyok: World Record Rovers
By Почта СССР [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Arguably the most “successful” dog astronauts were a pair named Veterok and Ubolyok, who were launched aboard Kosmos 110 in 1966. Veterok and Ubolyok were used to test the prolonged effect of cosmic radiation on living creatures, and were left in orbit for 21 days, the longest canine space flight ever. Their record was unbroken even by humans for almost a decade.
A Complex Legacy
Are space dogs victims or heroes? During the 1950s and 1960s, almost 30 dogs were sent into space. Many of them did not survive the journey. Still, there’s no denying the valuable role animals have played in helping advance science.
Without dogs in space, the Soviet Union and U.S. could not have made such impressive progress in interstellar exploration, and untold human lives could have been lost.
Of course, these days, animal testing is under much closer scrutiny. While Russia continues to use monkeys in space tests, NASA has reduced the number of animal test subjects, and human astronauts now conduct the majority of testing in space.
The legacy of Laika and her brave little comrades endures as a reminder of mankind’s limitless potential, and man’s best friend’s limitless devotion.
Top image via Flickr/istolethetv