Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is rightly credited with being the first human to enter outer space, but he was not the first earthling to enter the vast Milky Way.
A few years before Gagarin’s groundbreaking 1961 orbit, a stray dog named Laika embarked on a suicide mission to space, becoming the first creature in history to orbit the planet.
At the time, the mutt’s successful launch was seen as one of Russian’s biggest victories.
Laika, whose name means barker in English, was picked up from the streets of Moscow a few days before the launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik, the first artificial satellite propelled to space in history, had been sent into orbit only a month before. For this mission, the Soviets wanted to use the dog to test the safety of space travel for humans, and chose Laika because of her calm character and small size.
On November 3, 1957, Laika rocketed into orbit. The dog had only been training for a few days, which consisted of Laika being placed in progressively smaller cages as well as being placed in flight simulators.
Before Laika’s journey, the U.S. and the USSR had both sent other animals into flight for scientific studies, but only for a few minutes in sub-orbit. None had traveled into orbit. None had made it to zero-gravity. Laika would be the first.
Her groundbreaking expedition was a trip of no return, and Soviet scientists knew this from the start. They claimed her death would be humane, that the 250-pound Sputnik 2 would feed the dog and transmit its vitals signs until the oxygen ran out. Then she would be fed poisoned dog food that would kill her painlessly.
For years, people believed the Soviets’ story about the heroic dog and her humane treatment. But Laika’s ending was far from dignified and painless. At the 2002 World Space Congress in Houston, Tex., former Soviet scientist Dimitri Malashenkov revealed that the dog died within hours of launch because of stress and overheating caused by a faulty and quickly-designed temperature control system.
Indeed, Malashenkov said, the stray snatched from the streets of Moscow perished within hours. The revolutionary sphere didn’t survive, either: After five months of orbiting the planet, it returned on April 4th, 1958, burning up as it entered the atmosphere.
Though Laika died, her mission paved the way for dramatic advances in space flight. Other canine explorers would follow — 36 Soviet “sputpups,” to be exact — and provide the intelligence needed for Gagarin’s eventual mission.
Years after his historic flight, the cosmonaut pondered his connection with Laika and the other dogs who led the way into space. “I still can’t understand who I am,” Gagarin said. “The first man, or the last dog?”
Next, read about Enos, the first chimp to orbit the Earth.