Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth in 1957
However, Laika was not the first animal in space. The United States and the U.S.S.R. had been putting animals atop rockets since 1947.
Laika was a young, part-Samoyed terrier found as a stray in Moscow. She was chosen as the Soviet scientists believed a homeless animal would be better equipped to endure the cold, hunger and harsh conditions of space travel. However, with inadequate oxygen and food supplies, Laika’s death in space was expected from the outset of the mission.
In their training before the launch, the canine candidates were placed in a series of demanding endurance trials and medical examinations. Among other tests, scientists examined how the animals would cope in the distressingly cramped space capsule. Laika and two other dogs (Albina and Mushka) were placed in increasingly smaller cages over several weeks. With her calm temperament and grace under pressure, Laika was chosen. Vladimir Yazdovsky, the leader of the Soviet space mission, described Laika as “quiet and charming.”
Laika’s spacecraft, Sputnik 2 was fitted with a variety of innovative devices to keep her alive. There was an oxygen generator which absorbed carbon dioxide, a heat-activated fan to regulate the temperature and the capsule was stocked with enough food to keep the dog alive for seven days.
There are conflicting accounts of Laika’s death in space. The Soviet Union initially suggested she had died when the oxygen levels depleted or that she had been deliberately ‘put to sleep’ with poisoned food. In 1999 several Russian sources (such as the scientists involved in the space programme) stated that Laika had died on the fourth orbit of the Earth after a failure in Sputnik 2’s temperature controls. On 14 April 1958 (after approximately 2,570 orbits), Sputnik 2 and Laika’s remains left orbit and disintegrated on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
The true cause and time of her death were not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six or, as the Soviet government initially claimed, she was euthanised prior to oxygen depletion.
In 2008, nearly 50 years after the historic flight, a monument to Laika was finally installed outside Star City, a military facility in Russia where she was trained for her trip. The statue resembles a rocket that merges into a hand, launching Laika into space.
On October 18, 1963, Félicette, a black and white female Parisian stray cat, became the first cat launched into space.