Laika—Her Legacy the Power of the Small

By Joe Elliott, November 2017

November 3 marks the anniversary of the first animal in orbit.

Sixty years ago, on November 3, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics placed a little dog named Laika into space orbit. An authentic pioneer, she traveled in true Star Trek fashion where no sentient being had gone before (the Soviets had sent other animals into space, but Laika was the first to achieve full orbital status). The accomplishment, while impressive, came at a very high cost, one that was almost certainly not worth paying. Nonetheless, it taught us some valuable lessons, both about space and our fellow creatures.

Space research exploded following the end of WWII, and by the early 1950s, there was talk of one day putting a man on the moon. However, researchers first needed a better grasp of just how well a human might fare in space.

The scientific world was still puzzling over the conundrum when, in October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite. The news sent shock waves throughout the United States, which was stunned to discover that our arch Cold War foe had bested us. We were further amazed when less than a month later, they launched a second craft, Sputnik 2, this one carrying a small dog.

A Samoyed/terrier mix, Laika was reportedly around three years old when she was found wandering the streets of Moscow. It is said she was chosen in part because it was assumed that strays, inured as they supposedly were to the harsh Russian climate, would be physically stronger and more resilient than their sheltered counterparts. Among other things, her training involved a series of rigorous endurance trials and medical examinations. Many animals—and humans, for that matter—subjected to such treatment might have buckled under the pressure.

But Laika turned out to be no ordinary dog. By all accounts, she stood up well, maintaining her composure, cooperative with her trainers and eager to learn new things. Described by one of her handlers as “quiet and charming,” she got along well with the other lab dogs and sometimes spent weekends in staff homes. It’s hard to say what these individuals felt, knowing that this well behaved, lovable little dog faced almost certain death.

Blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited her, she was strapped into the Sputnik spacecraft that cold fall day (it is easy to imagine her nuzzling the hand of the last person to touch her). Once she was aloft, the ground crew was able to monitor her vital signs for a time. In one heartbreaking detail, it was reported that in early telemetry, she was somewhat agitated but still eating her food. In other words, in the most extreme, terrifying conditions imaginable, this fearless little soul attempted to normalize her experience by doing what all healthy dogs do: eat her dinner. It was so very characteristic of her, exemplifying as she did what Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” Laika was all about grace, and love.

Perhaps the most regrettable thing about this tale is that, despite giving up her life for the cause of space research—she died from overheating within hours of launch, a fact not revealed until 2002—little useful information was gained from the experiment. Years later, a Russian scientist close to the project was quoted as saying, “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it [sent her into space].”

Today, a small statue stands in Laika’s honor at the Russian cosmonaut training facility in Star City. An acclaimed 2007 graphic novel titled Laika introduced her to a new generation, and her image has appeared on postage stamps. However, Laika’s greatest legacy can be found in the worldwide attention she brought to issues surrounding the ethical treatment of animals in medical and scientific research. Her story is a testament of the small and powerless to speak with a large moral voice, and to make the world listen.

Joe Elliott lives in Asheville, North Carolina.