Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched the first living being—a dog—into orbit on the spacecraft Sputnik 2. A female mongrel, Laika was a stray found on the streets of Moscow. She was one of many candidates for the mission. With her fellow dogs, she was trained by being kept in increasingly small cages for weeks at a time. Laika’s calm manner under these conditions led to her being chosen.
It emerged later—and contrary to what the Soviet authorities had previously said—that Laika died a few hours into the flight, from overheating and stress. Her body continued to orbit the Earth for six months, before burning up in the atmosphere. Although Sputnik 2 paved the way for Yuri Gagarin’s successful spaceflight in 1961, a leading member of the Soviet space programme has since expressed regret, claiming that not enough had been learned from the mission to justify her death. She remains the only living creature sent knowingly into space to die.
Her tale inspired Russian writer Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) to write his short story “The Dog”, which Prospect published in our September 2006 issue. At the risk of spoiling it, I much prefer Grossman’s ending.