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Laika the Space Dog: 62 Years Later, Remembering the Story of a 'Space Spectacle'

We take a look back at the story of Laika the "space dog", the first living being in human memory to orbit the Earth.

Shouvik Das | News18.com@distantvicinity

Updated:November 4, 2019, 10:51 PM IST
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Laika, the space dog, moments ahead of her mission aboard Sputnik-2. (Photo: Alamy)
Laika, the space dog, moments ahead of her mission aboard Sputnik-2. (Photo: Alamy)

We've all known about Laika the space dog, the Russian mongrel that, unbeknownst to herself, creating irreplacable history by becoming the first living creature to orbit the Earth, exactly 62 years ago. The myth and life of one of the world's most favourite dogs of all time have endured, but for many, the truth behind Laika's space mission largely remained unknown until 1998, when cosmonauts finally admitted the truth.

Contrary to what the Soviet Union had maintained for years as pressure from the media and activist groups began to mount, Laika the space dog had not survived in space for seven days. She was not euthanised with a serving of poisoned gelatinous food before she could die of asphyxiation because of the oxygen supply running out. While science and space missions did learn something from this tryst, Laika the space dog was not meant to survive the journey to the Earth's orbit, by mission design. In truth, the Sputnik-2 mission was a direct consequence of the first generation space race that was gradually unfolding, issued in haste owing to then-Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev's demand for a "space spectacle".

In October 1957, the Sputnik-1 mission had catapulted Russia to global stardom and unprecedented power. Having won the crown of launching the first ever artificial satellite successfully into any of Earth's orbits, the Soviets preponed the launch of Sputnik-2 by a month. This time, after having validated their efficacy of radio communication from space, the Soviet scientists aimed to establish the effects of life upon orbiting the Earth in space, bringing Laika the Russian mongrel into the fold. After months of training, Laika was put onboard Sputnik-2, with a special space harness, and all apparatus put in place to support her until she lived.

However, Laika passed away inside the flight, just five to seven hours into her journey. While initial statements denied any such case, later revelations admitted that the haste in which Sputnik-2 was built (in order to meet Premier Khrushchev's November 7 deadline) meant that the spacecraft was bound to have some critical flaw. During the first orbit, a failure in the separation stage of Sputnik-2 tore off the thermal insulation, which raised the cabin temperature well above levels of what a Russian mongrel is used to. While there could not be any confirmation, Laika the space dog likely passed away due to this, and her remains were destroyed when Sputnik-2's batteries ran out, and it disintegrated and burned up when it fell back into the Earth's atmosphere.

During her penultimate moments, Laika's greatest contribution was to record the pattern of her pulse during launch, acceleration and orbital entry. However, Laika's real story spurned many animal rights activists into action, debating on whether animals should be used in one-way missions that would evidently not safeguard their lives. Many scientists and cosmonauts involved with Sputnik-2 revealed, years later, that despite the promises made back then, space missions were nowhere close to being ready for carrying a life to space and bringing it back, and anyone involved in the mission were already aware of this.

However, 62 years later, Laika the space dog continues to live on among us, in museum statues, postage stamps, and every year on this day, when we remember her involuntarily heroic sacrifice in the name of mankind and science.

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