Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Laika, Space Dog

The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s was, like most aspects of the Cold War, a surrogate contest between democracy and communism. Each country vied for supremacy in space, if only for a matter of national pride.

Before humans could venture into space, there were many unknowns about the final frontier. Each country had to conduct experiments to see if humans could possibly survive the journey into space and to determine if there were physiological changes that would endanger the space traveler. Unwilling to risk human lives when conducting these experiments, animals were used as test subjects during these initial experiments. Less than one month after the launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in space, Sputnik II carried its canine cosmonaut, later nicknamed Laika, into space.

Laika was a mongrel dog rescued from a Moscow animal shelter. Her pedigree remains unknown, but she may have been a mix of Husky and/or Samoyed with other breeds also figuring into her makeup. She was approximately 3 years old when she was selected from a pool of three dogs to become the first living creature to orbit the earth.

Cold War politics figured in to the ultimate decision to send Laika into space. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, following the successful launch of Sputnik I, requested that Sputnik II be launched by November 7, 1957, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. The rush to get the satellite launched meant that some shortcuts would have to be done in order to meet the deadline.

Unfortunately for Laika, Sputnik II was not designed to return to earth; the satellite was launched knowing that it would ultimately burn up on re-entry into earth's atmosphere. While many aspects of the flight of Sputnik II were hidden from public view due to the secretive nature of the Soviet space program, there have been reports that poisoned food was to be fed to Laika to euthanize her. Apparent problems during the launch, however, made these humane efforts unnecessary.

While the successful launch of Laika was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, it soon backfired on them. Once it was known that there was no way for Laika to return safely to earth, the West cranked up the propaganda. Laika was a pawn in international politics.

The true story seems to be that Laika had died well before the news of Sputnik II was widely known. The best evidence is that a few hours after launch, Laika died, possibly from stress and overheating.

Laika, with her docile and unassuming appearance, became a cause célèbre for animal rights. She remains the only living creature to have been launched into space without the means to be returned safely. Without a doubt, Laika's friendly, yet passive, appearance, coupled with the outcry at how her life was so brashly sacrificed, has made it unlikely that there will be future space experiments on helpless animals.

Several countries, mainly Communist countries, have issued stamps honoring Laika. Mongolian and Romanian stamps are displayed nearby. Several countries issued commemorative stamps featuring Laika in 2007, the 50th anniversary of her historic space flight.

Most stamps featuring Laika are available very cheaply.


Miloje Chastven said...

Nice about Laika, just to mention that in 2007 - Bosnia and Herzegovina (Muslim part), issued also one with Laika, issue are named "Dog Laika - first living being in cosmos" - nice design, dog with equipment topic. It was face value of 3.00 KM (~1.50 $) - I think that it is worth to include it in every collection.

Scan on request.

best regards from Israel

Anonymous said...

In 1973, I named my dog Laika, because I read about the Russian dog in the encyclopedia.

My Laika lived a long and happy life. Laika is a good name for a dog.