The first dog to fly into orbit was a Soviet Russian dog called Laika. She was launched into orbit aboard Sputnik 2 on 3 November, 1957.
The decision to launch Laika into space was taken for two main reasons – scientific and political. The scientific reason was that little was known about how humans would cope in space, and observing animals in space would provide some rudimentary knowledge on this. The second, political reason, was that Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union at the time, wanted a ‘spectacular’ space mission to be launched on 7 November, 1957, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.
Sadly, Laika also became the first animal to die in space – the scientists who planned her mission knew that there was no way to safely return her to earth. They had hoped to euthanize Laika after a few days in space, but recent evidence indicates that it is likely that she died after just a few hours of spaceflight, as the Sputnik 2 capsule in which she was a passenger overheated. Aware of global sensitivities, and not wishing to damage their scientific and PR coup, the official line from the Soviet Union remained for many years that she had been euthanized (although there were also conflicting reports from the Soviet Union that she had died peacefully after oxygen in the capsule had run out).
Laika received a great deal of training for her mission – not very much of which would be considered acceptable by society today. In order to prepare for a long period in cramped conditions, Laika, Albina and Mushka (the other two dogs she trained with) were forced to stay in smaller and smaller cages for long periods – up to 20 days at times – and were placed in centrifuges to simulate the effect of launch.
Laika was a calm dog who had been found as a stray near Moscow, and she accepted her training. When not training her, the scientists involved in the programme treated her well, and with sympathy, and she was known by a number of other nicknames – including Little Curly (Kudryavka), Little Lemon (Limonchik) and Little Bug (Zhuchka) . One of the scientists took her to his home briefly just before the mission launched, to play with his children. He later said: “I wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live.”