The year is 1957. The “Space Race” is at it’s height, with both the Soviet Union and the United States of America vying for the lead. The tension is palpable all over the world, as both nations work to gain their victories. Scientists, under tremendous pressure to produce results are scrounging for ways to contribute to the cause.
The Russians wanted to be the first to send a living creature into orbit around Earth. This would prove to be more complicated than either side anticipated. The scientists had many questions. Would the entry into the atmosphere disorient the astronauts? Was space livable? Would the temperatures cause flight failure?
The Soviets set out to find a viable, tough animal that could withstand the measures they wanted to test. They needed a small, female dog. They believed a female dog would be more docile, and easier to train. And she needed to be small because the compartment would be a tight fit for a bigger dog. They chose a stray, believing that they would be used to surviving in harsh climates.
Enter Laika, a small, stocky stray. She was believed to be part-husky, part-terrier, making her a tough little pup with a viable attitude for space travel. Sadly, her trip was going to be a one-way mission, as there had not been enough time to construct a return vessel before her launch date was set. As is the sad reality of many early experiments, Laika was viewed as a test subject.
On November 3rd, 1957, Laika donned her space suit and her ship was sent into orbit. Accounts vary regarding the number of times Laika revolved around Earth, but recently scientists have said that she circled at least three times before succumbing to the conditions of space. Those that worked on the mission have expressed their sadness about the attributes of Laika’s passing, but have accepted that her sacrifice allowed them to know the answers to questions that kept many future astronauts alive.
Included in many monuments dedicated to those who died during space exploration, Laika has also been memorialized on stamps, matchboxes, buttons, and pins.
In 2015, a statue was erected in her honor in Moscow, showing a figurine of a small dog posed atop a rocket. Many people leave flowers, dog treats, and other mementos as thanks for Laika’s ultimate sacrifice. After her death, the scientific community was forever changed, and no other animal was ever used in a space exploration without the expectation of returning home.