As has been noted, Muttnik: The First Dog In Space is an enchanting take on the story of the Russian dog Laika who was not just the first canine, but the first living creature to be launched into space orbit from Earth -- an accomplishment that took place on 3 November 1957. Such an event would be a tremendous achievement in itself, but the true story of Laika -- a tale that reverberates far beyond Laika's brief three years of existence -- makes it even more legendary. It is a tale of blind ideological zeal forcing scientists to cut corners, a disinformation campaign and a cover-up that spanned 45 years before the truth was revealed ... a tale of a superpower (the old Soviet Union) being forced to take a deep breath, and of people being forced to think about animals being used as sacrificial lambs in the name of science.
The story begins sometime before 1957 in the heat of the Cold War with the Soviet Union looking to win the race into space and Soviet Dictator Nikita Khrushchev circling 7 November 1957 on his calendar -- the 40th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. What a crowning achievement for Communism and what glory for the Soviet Union if the Soviets could not only win the race against the hated Americans, but do it in time for this important anniversary. Well, they did it with plenty of time to spare. On 4 October 1957, much of the world reacted with shock (and a large portion of it with added dismay) in learning that the Soviets had successfully launched a satellite into orbit -- Sputnik 1 -- a 40-pound sphere carrying nothing more than a simple transmitter that beeped an ominous signal to the world.
Khrushchev immediately hosted a reception for the leaders and scientists of the Soviet Space Program. The glad-handing was expected; what was unexpected was Khrushchev's "suggestion" that the Soviet Union should launch a second satellite -- this one carrying an animal -- to actually coincide with the date of the 40th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. If such a feat were to be accomplished, it would have to be done in less than four weeks. And the Space Program's pre-planned agenda would have to be tossed out the window. Yes, the Program leaders had planned to send animals into orbit, but only if the capsules were designed to return to Earth and be successfully recovered so their live cargo could be studied further. Not only was it essential to study the effects of weightlessness and other rigours of spaceflight on living organisms, but it was also important to study the effects of returning to gravity and to monitor any long-term effects of a sojourn into space. This had to be done through experimentation using animal subjects, long before any decision could be made to send a human into orbit.
The trouble was, the Space Program had not intended to send animals up immediately. Satellites for that purpose were very much in the preliminary design stage. The second launch originally had been planned for no sooner than December 1957 and it was designed to involve a satellite carrying an array of scientific instrumentation -- not live cargo. It was too far along in production to be adapted. Program scientists would be forced to start from scratch and cut corners -- with all the dangers inherent in such a rush job -- in order to meet the imposed deadline. Of course, no one would have dared to point out any misgivings to Khrushchev. After all, when the supreme leader of the totalitarian world "suggests" that you jump, you simply jump and pray that you jump high enough. So began the headlong rush to put a living creature into orbit, a process that quite literally saw technology jump from drawing board to manufacturing to launch pad with practically no time for testing. In addition, it was apparent there was no time to perfect the technology that would allow the capsule bearing its animal passenger to return safely to Earth. The animal would have to be sacrificed, although the intention was to do it as humanely as possible.
It is not entirely clear whether Laika had already been "drafted" into the Space Program or whether she was scooped from the streets of Moscow specifically for this mission. In any case, she had been one of many stray mongrels wandering the streets of the Russian capital, living a very precarious existence while scrounging for scraps of food. There's also some disagreement over the nature of Laika's mixed blood. Clearly, she could claim Spitz ancestry (possibly of the Siberian variety -- fearless yet good companions) and there's one suggestion on the Internet that one of her other close ancestors -- perhaps even a parent -- may have been a Beagle. Whatever the case, she was a mongrel ... and would turn out to be the most famous mongrel in the canine world. How she got the name "Laika" is rather curious as well. (Supposedly, her real name was Kudryavka which translates as "Little Curly".) "Laika" is the Russian word for "barker" and was actually used as the word for all Spitz-type dogs prior to the 19th Century. Perhaps she liked to bark a lot and was given "Laika" as a nickname.
Photographs of Laika show a healthy, alert and seemingly well-adjusted dog so it is reasonable to assume that she was well cared for. She would have to be, considering the importance of the data that the scientists hoped to receive while she was in orbit. This would be the ultimate test of a fledgling life-support system. Lessons learned from this flight would pave the way for future missions involving canine subjects, and eventually lead to the launching of the first human into space -- Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961. Unfortunately for Laika, those lessons would be learned the hard way. As previously mentioned, the intention was to euthanise Laika when her life support began to diminish, so that she would die painlessly. How this was to be achieved is a bit of a mystery. Some reports suggest a gas was to be released into her cabin and she would be "put to sleep"; others suggest some type of euthanising substance was to be released into her food or water. It's all academic anyway because Laika did not live to reach that stage of the mission.
Laika underwent up to 20 days of "training" for her mission. When she wasn't being placed in a mockup of her satellite "cabin" to make her familiar with the cramped conditions or undergoing tests in a centrifuge to measure the effects of g-forces on her body, she was housed in smaller-and-smaller cages to get her used to spending lengthy periods of time in a confined space. And confined it would be. She would be harnessed, she would be clad in a special suit and although she would be allowed some movement, she would be chained to prevent her from turning around -- not that there was enough room for her to do that easily anyway. She would have access to water and food (in jelly form). She would be hooked up to monitors so that her vital signs could be closely studied and recorded. An oxygen generator was installed in her "cabin" along with a device to absorb carbon dioxide. And this was vital: A fan was installed to turn on automatically whenever the temperature in the capsule went above 15 degrees Celsius. (Yes, space is cold, but the sun's rays on a metal capsule plus whatever heat was being generated internally could potentially turn the cabin into an oven.)
By all accounts, the launch of Sputnik 2 on 3 November 1957 went perfectly. Understandably, Laika was stressed to the max. Her heartbeat increased to three times what it would normally be at rest. But as soon as she entered a weightless state, her heartrate began to decrease -- although it would take three times longer to decrease to a pre-launch rate than it took to decrease to the same rate following a centrifuge ride. Clearly, she was terrified, but the worst was yet to come. And while Laika was enduring the first few hours of what seemed to be a normal flight, the Soviet Union announced its latest "triumph" to the world. They included the fact that it would be a one-way trip for Laika, news which generated a degree of worldwide anger and protest. Approximately a week later, they announced that "as planned", Laika had passed away painlessly and peacefully. Sputnik 2 had become Laika's "coffin", circling the Earth 2,570 times before burning up in the atmosphere on 4 April 1958.
Again, there were outbursts of anger and protest, but nowhere near as harsh as it would have been had the truth been known. But thanks to the Soviet Government's skillful penchant for lies, coverup and disinformation, the truth would remain buried for 45 years. But not completely. There were people involved in the Soviet Space Program who were not happy with the entire Sputnik 2 affair and its outcome, and there were more than a few loose lips. Rumours began to filter out of the Soviet Union that something had gone horribly wrong concerning Laika. Precise details weren't known, but it was enough to stoke a few fires. Animal-welfare groups were already up-in-arms over Laika's one-way trip. The rumours only served to anger them more. Science was about to find itself at the wrong end of a microscope.
The breakup of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the final decade of the 20th Century blew the lid off many secrets of the old Soviet regime. Most of the public's attention was for reports of human-rights abuses, environmental disasters, economic mismanagement and military fiascos. Nothing substantive concerning Laika came to the fore, except for a few unsubstantiated snippets of information -- mostly incorrect rumours -- which found their way onto the Internet. It wasn't until October 2002 that the full truth was revealed during a gathering of the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, USA by Dr. Dimitri Malashenkov of the Institute for Biological Problems in Moscow. The revelation both surprised and shocked assembled scientists.
As reported by Dr. David Whitehouse, Science Editor for BBC News Online, in an article dated 28 October 2002, Dr. Malashenkov described how "telemetry from the Sputnik 2 capsule showed that the temperature and humidity increased after the start of the mission. After five-to-seven hours into the flight, no lifesigns were being received from Laika. By the fourth orbit, it was apparent that Laika had died from overheating and stress." (Another report on the Internet lists the cause of death as "overheating and extreme agitation".)
Considering the safeguards that were installed in the capsule, it is certain that either the cooling fan malfunctioned and did not kick in when the temperature exceeded 15 degrees Celsius or the fan was working properly, but was inadequate for the task and failed to keep Laika's body from overheating. Whatever the cause, the Soviet Government of the time was not about to admit failure in the middle of the race for space. And having already received condemnation for sending a dog on a one-way mission, Government officials weren't about to risk a public-relations disaster by revealing that Laika had suffered an extremely painful and distressful death.
But in both life and death, Laika had the ability to change the world. Firstly, scientists gathered enough data from those first few orbits to determine that a living creature could survive for a lengthy period of time in a weightless condition. Secondly, the circumstances of her death showed that greater safeguards were needed. Thirdly, even the Soviets were given pause to reflect on the foolhardiness of rushing into something as dangerous as spaceflight at the whim of an ideologically-obsessed leader. They went back to their original agenda and continued to develop a productive space program. And although Laika's true fate was only suspected at the time, she was at the forefront of debate over the ethical treatment of animals involved in scientific experimentation. That is a debate that continues to this day, but the truth is that many governments and scientific institutions have ordered changes in regulations and procedures to provide better care for animals involved in experimentation. Whether these changes are sufficient is a debate for another time, but the fact remains that Laika helped to get the ball rolling. She was truly a pioneer -- and a hero of both the canine world and the animal kingdom -- in more ways than one.
And yes, Niki McCretton's live physical-theatre presentation -- Muttnik: The First Dog In Space -- is really an enchanting fantasy quite loosely based on the life and "adventures" of Laika. It is very finely crafted children's entertainment. That is what it was meant to be. But it is also hoped that this show will inspire children one day to learn about Laika and to keep her in memory. We hear so much about the first man to walk on the Moon or the first man in space but the fact remains, Laika was the first living creature to experience a launch into space, the first to orbit the Earth, the first to experience weightlessness outside Earth's boundary. Her sacrifice was not in vain. Her place in history is assured. She should -- and will -- be remembered.
ARCHIVE EDITOR'S NOTE --- Information used as the basis for this article was gleaned from a number of sources believed to be reputable, both online and offline. It should be noted, however, that during online research, a number of webpages were discovered which contain misinformation due to reliance on past rumour. Some also contain purported "quotations" attributed to unidentified Russian sources. Many make no reference whatsoever to the information revealed at the Houston Conference in October 2002. So caution is advised when searching the Internet for information on this subject. As much care as possible has been taken to ensure the validity of information contained in this article.
1. "Commemorative Laika Stamp - Mongolia"
2. "Laika In Harness Prior To Launch"
3. "Laika Practising In Cabin Mockup"
4. "Scale Model Of Sputnik 2"
(Original Source: Soviet Space Program)