April 6, 2021 | 1:49pm EDT
A lot of people have heard of Laika, the famous Soviet space dog whose death has sparked the telling and retelling of her story as a tragic example of using animals in scientific endeavors. When telling her story, however, there tends to be a lot of other dogs left out of the story, both before and after her mission in Sputnik II. I work at the National Air and Space Museum, and here is my telling of the Soviet space dogs’ stories.
During the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union were pitted against one another on a global stage to outperform one another in every arena possible. This led to events like the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Space Race. While many of the competitions-made-altercations in the Cold War were to demonstrate prowess in ideological, political, or military power, the Space Race was unique in that it mainly sought to demonstrate technological power. The Space Race has historically been one of the only times in American history when NASA was funded and average people were excited and informed about the endeavors of our space program. When JFK addressed the nation in 1961, the race itself became quantifiable as a competition to see which country could put a man on the Moon.
Before human spaceflight could be possible or even attempted, however, scientists in both countries had to test their spacecraft and life support systems with animal subjects. The first animals in space were actually fruit flies, not dogs or monkeys.
In terms of the Soviet Union’s space dogs, however, the first pair to be sent to space were two dogs named Tsygan and Dezik in 1951. They were launched into a sub orbital flight pattern, meaning that they did not reach “past” the earth’s atmosphere and did not go high enough to orbit the Earth. A suborbital flight is about 62 miles above the Earth’s surface. The pair of dogs landed safely, were recovered successfully from the spacecraft, and Tsygan was adopted by a physicist who worked on the project. The two were titled “the world’s first dogmonauts”.
After Tsygan and Dezik came lots of other dog pairs, all of which were sent into suborbital flight patterns in the same way. What makes Laika different is not that she was the first or the last, but that she was the first dog to be launched into low Earth orbit. Low Earth orbit is about where the ISS orbits now, and is around 225 miles above the Earth’s surface. For the first low Earth orbit flight, it was imperative that the Soviet Union had a dog that was the correct size and weight, as they did not have the jet or fuel technology to launch very much weight. When looking for a dog to fit the specifications for this mission, the Soviet Union scoured the streets of Moscow for small, female, stray dogs. Female dogs are normally smaller and more passive, making for a perfect weight and a better temperament. After rounding up and bringing in around 50 candidates, the scientists began to narrow them down based on temperament. They exposed the dogs to the various stressors they might experience in the shuttle to see which dogs adapted the best to the stressors and which could not handle them. Some of these stressors included loud noises, changes in air pressure, and cramped or confined spaces.
Soviet scientists wanted to see what worked in the shuttle and what didn’t, and they wanted to do it as quickly as possible to get the data they needed for further testing with larger payloads, eventually leading up to the first man launched into space (Yuri Gagarin). Because of this time crunch and a lack of powerful jet technology, the first Soviet low Earth orbit trip was predetermined to be a one-way journey. The scientists knew that they could not fit any landing gear onto the shuttle without exceeding the weight capacity, and they didn’t have time to further develop more lightweight options. Unfortunately for Laika, her handlers knew she would never be coming home after her launch. Laika was one of the final two dogs in the running for the Sputnik II mission, along with a dog named Albina. Some scientists even recall that Albina outperformed Laika in some tests, but was spared because of the attachment the mission staff had to her. She had just had a litter of puppies, and she captured the hearts of the researchers working on her mission. For this reason, Laika (whose name translates to “barker”) was chosen instead.
Even though the researchers in charge of Sputnik II knew that they were sentencing Laika to death, they wanted her to have a good life until the very end. One of the scientists recalled taking her home for a few weeks to treat her like a normal dog before launch, and another snuck her a last meal even though she was intended to be fasting in order to maintain the correct baseline weight. The scientists had every intent of making sure that Laika died a painless death, with some accounts claiming that they intended to wait for her oxygen to run out and others claiming that they had a system which would have dispensed her poisoned food that would have quickly euthanized her. Both methods would have ended her life painlessly, especially that of oxygen deprivation, which has the same effect as falling asleep and never waking up. Unfortunately, spaceflight is almost never without its hurdles and struggles, and all the preparation in the world could not have helped Laika to reach the six or seven days she was supposed to live through before passing away.
As soon as the capsule launched, Laika began to panic and her heart rate tripled. As she panicked, the heat shield faulted and fell apart, causing the temperature to rise quickly inside of the capsule. With the heat shield quickly depleting and Laika panicking, the capsule reached an internal temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and Laika passed away within 5-7 hours of her launch. Declassified records of her heart monitor are in the possession of the National Air and Space Museum, but I wouldn’t recommend looking for them unless you’re prepared to cry. Laika did die alone and scared, and her sacrifice is still remembered today in statues, textbooks, and she is commemorated with namesake family pets even to this day. The Soviet Union falsified the information that was given to the public and instead reported that Laika lived in the shuttle from November 3rd to November 12th before dying a painless death. In reality, she passed in under eight hours and Sputnik II continued to orbit with her inside of it for five months before it crashed into the atmosphere and burned up. Laika’s legacy has led to some of the most important innovations in spaceflight, and ironically proved that life in orbit COULD be accomplished with the proper life support. Laika’s bravery and sacrifice are not tangible things, but her memory still affects almost everyone who studies space, spaceflight, or aeronautics. I know from my experience at work that visitors ask about her all the time, even though she died at the age of three in 1957.
After Laika, there were more missions with Soviet space dogs that have much happier endings. There were several more low risk missions in suborbital flight patterns before the next attempt to send any pups into low Earth orbit, which occurred again in 1960. In 1960, two stray dogs named Belka and Strelka became the first dogs to orbit the Earth and safely return to its surface. Strelka went on to have puppies, one of which was named Pushinka, or “fluffy”. In the photos to the left, Belka is the white dog and Strelka is the multicolored dog.
During a summit between the Kennedys and Kruschev, the Premier of the Soviet Union at the time, Jackie Kennedy expressed an interest in the Soviet space dogs. As a result, Kruschev sent Pushinka to the Kennedys as a gift, and after she was scanned for explosives, tracking devices, or spyware, she was adopted into the Kennedy family alongside their family dog, Charlie. Below are photos of Pushinka as an adult dog, and Charlie.
In what was later called a “Cold War romance”, Charlie and Pushinka went on to have four puppies: Streaker, Blackie, Butterfly, and White Tips (the Kennedys’ strong suit was apparently not in their ability to name things). These puppies, called the “pupniks” were adored by the American public, and over 10,000 people wrote to the White House asking to adopt one of the four pups. Jackie Kennedy asked her staffers to narrow those letters down to ten children, two of which were gifted pupniks of their own. Butterfly and Streaker were gifted to two American families while both Blackie and White Tips were gifted to family friends.
Because no one kept track of their lineage, descendents of the Muttniks tracing all the way back to Strelka in 1960 are probably beloved family dogs with no way to determine what legacy they came from. Hey, it might even be your pup!