For those of you who didn’t spend every waking minute of their childhood reading about dogs or dinosaurs (or ancient mythology), here is a story of the world’s most accomplished stray dog: Laika.
In 1957, Laika, a Moscow stray, became a Soviet hero (and the first female in space) when the Soviet Union strapped her into Sputnik II and launched it into the cold reaches of outer space. Until the Sputnik II experiment, little was known about the effects of space travel on living beings, specifically mammals. Sputnik II was not designed to be retrievable, and Laika was expected to die–but given the priorities placed on the Cold War space race, the ethical controversy was not addressed until fairly recently.
Laika did eventually die an excruciating death from overheating when life support failed a few hours after launch (a fact which was not made public until 2002; Soviet citizens were informed that she was euthanized when Sputnik’s oxygen supply depleted), for which Russia recognized her with a monument in 2008. Her trip also paved the way for more ambitious human-controlled endeavors, like John’s Glenn’s historic orbit, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Tom Hanks’ career. Oleg Gazenko (one of the scientists who worked on the Sputnik II project), however, issued this statement in 1998:
“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 shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
Like all dogs used in the Soviet space program, Laika was a stray. Strays were selected because Soviet doctors apparently believed that the mean streets of Soviet Moscow were the closest approximation of conditions a dog could experience in preparation for the cold, hunger, and bleak desolation of outer space. Small dogs were selected due to the size constraints of the Sputnik II capsule, and Laika traveled in a custom space suit complete with euthanasia needle (I don’t want to think about the experiments involved in the development of that particular component) and a feeding trough from which she’d been trained to eat high-nutrition gel.
“Laika was quiet and charming,” wrote Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky in his book about Soviet space medicine. She was widely described in the Soviet press and scientific reports as “phlegmatic” (laid-back) and non-confrontational. Once, the doctor even took Laika home to play with his children. “I wanted to do something nice for her: she had so little time left to live,” he said. After fetch with the kids, Yazdovsky launched Laika into space, attached to a fuel-filled tin can with no parachute, and into history. We should all be so lucky.