Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was thrilled by the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Not only had his scientists, led by chief designer Sergei Korolev, managed to put the 184-pound ball into orbit, they’d done it before the Americans. In fact, Khrushchev was so thrilled he turned around the very next day and asked Korolev to launch another. Sounds easy enough, right?
But there was a catch. Khrushchev wanted a launch to correspond with the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7. Korolev said he could do it and upped the ante. He suggested this second Sputnik carry a dog. Luckily for Korolev, Soviet scientists had some prior experience with launching biological payloads, having sent dogs and other animals on short suborbital hops before. But without a spacecraft with life support ready, Korolev opted to modify a Sputnik-type satellite.
Called Sputnik 2, the final satellite dwarfed its predecessor. The bulk of the spacecraft was a cylindrical module. Inside a dog (outfitted in a pressure suit) would sit within reach of a specially designed feeding trough and in view of a slow scan television system. A near copy of the original Sputnik would sit on top of this larger life support module; the small sphere housed all the equipment needed to transmit spacecraft telemetry and biological readings to the ground. During the flight, the R-7 launch vehicle’s core would stay mated to the spacecraft to guide it and help ground controllers track the orbiting dog.
Laika in her space suit
Even though a special dog spacesuit had been developed, the trip was designed to be one way. Technology for a safe return and landing didn’t yet exist and Korolev didn’t have time to design and test a landing system with the November 7 deadline. So the landing system was replaced with a lethal injection. Scientists figured it was better to put the dog to sleep in space than force it to suffer a slow death by asphyxiation after the oxygen tanks inevitably ran out.
Just which dog would get the honour of being the first living being in orbit was decided by aeromedical specialist Vasiliy Parin. Out of the ten canines trained at the Air Force’s Institute of Aviation Medicine, some of them even with suborbital flight experience, he chose Laika for her even temperament. To the humans in charge, it was a high honour to be selected for such a mission. Veteran suborbital cosmopup Albina served as her backup.
As the November launch date neared, six physicians took Laika and Albina through their final preflight training regimen. Both were also subjected to intensive surgical preparations: wires were placed under the skin over their ribs to monitor breathing and portions of their carotid arteries were diverted to specially wired skin patches to record blood pressure and pulse rate.
By October 31, preparations were done. Laika was dressed in her puppy pressure suit and loaded into her orbital tomb. By the end of the day, she was mated to the R-7 rocket and sitting out on the launchpad.
For three days scientists monitored her vitals around the clock, paying special attention to the spacecraft’s heating system. Novembers are cold at the Baikonur launch site, and no one wanted Laika to freeze before leaving the Earth. Finally, just after 5:30 local time on the morning of November 3, Laika’s craft launched. The total payload that morning was a whopping 14,560 pounds, just 1,120 of which was the actual spacecraft.
The Sputnik 2 launch.
Laika survived the launch and Sputnik 2’s successful orbital insertion, but she didn’t survive a flawed thermal control system. For the four days after launch, doctors watched the temperature in Laika’s biological compartment rise until she eventually succumbed to heat exhaustion on November 7.
But the technical problems plaguing Sputnik 2 and the loss of Laika paled in comparison to the mission’s outward successes. As Khrushchev looked over celebrations in Red Square on 40th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution, he could proudly say that the Soviets had put two satellites and the world’s first living being into orbit within a month, while the Americans tried desperately to catch up. Little Laika was a huge boost to the Soviet cause, and if anything, her legacy has grown in the past 55 years. As if the pressure of Sputnik 1 were not enough for the Americans, Laika’s flight sparked the popular support for the budgets and brains that fueled the space race.