Saturday, November 03, 2007

Little Laika: Top Dog in the Space Race

(Photo courtesy of Reuters News Service)

November 3, 1957, the Soviets blazed a trail into space by launching the first living creature, a dog named Laika (Little Barker). The project was launched only one month after Sputnik in October 1957, the first satellite in orbit. Premier Krushchev, still heady with the international excitement of being first in space, ordered his space program to come up with something special for November 7th, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - when Czar Nicolas II was booted out and Communists came to power.

Soviet scientists were in a bit of a quandary how to top Sputnik and design something special and successful within weeks. No pressure there of course. ;) So when someone suggested launching a dog into space, undoubtedly shouts of BINGO (бинго!) were heard in the laboratory. There was hardly enough time to design a space craft let alone a re-entry craft. And so, unfortunately for the little Laika, along with the honor of being first in space came the dubious honor of being the first cosmic martyr.

Nine days before the launch, two small dogs were selected, both stray mongrels, considered better suited for the harsh conditions than purebreds. Russia is the land of the stray as I often say, so there was no shortage of choices. How the lot fell to Laika is still grounds for speculation. She was chosen because of her good looks, one story goes. The lucky dog needed to be photogenic considering that her face would be printed in papers around the world. Another story is that Laika’s rival was top dog in the hearts of the space scientists and they couldn’t bear to think of her demise in space. And so it was that little Laika was chosen for the auspicious role.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters News Service)

Other questions might surface: Did Laika have any choice? Did she go willingly? did she at least get to bid her loved ones farewell? Alas, some things are left for the ages, the answers echoing somewhere in the stratosphere. For little Laika, the choice was only to do and die, not to ask the reason why.

After Laika’s debut in the space program, other dogs followed her into the cosmos. The most famous were Belka (White-y) and Strelka (Little Arrow) in August, 1960. In a documentary shown on local TV last Sunday, we saw the landing of their space craft, Sputnik 5, out in the steppe somewhere, being met by several folks in a pickup truck, as I recall, including someone in a lab coat and little Belka being helped out of her rig, not unlike a sausage stuffed into a casing. But she emerged happy and frisky and tickled to be back on planet earth. Belka and Strelka were not alone; they were accompanied by a rabbit, 42 mice and 2 rats. All passengers survived.

After she returned from space, Strelka bore a litter of puppies, one of which Nikita Krushchev presented as a gift to a young Caroline Kennedy. The little dog became a family pet only after passing security clearance because this was, after all the height of the Cold War. There was no need for another spy, particularly a four-footed one.

The following spring when the Soviets sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin was said to have quipped, I still don’t understand who I am: the first human or the last dog in space.

Photos: Above, that's me with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Below, Statue erected in honor of his visit to Rostov-on-Don, July 1967.

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