Dogs in Space

A monument in Russia, dedicated to Laika, the first dog to go to space. Wikimedia Commons, CC By-SA 2.0

What do you do when you want to send humans to space but no one has done it before? How do you test important life-support systems? For the Russians in the 1950s, the answer was to send animals — and, in particular — dogs. They are small enough to fit into test capsules, and they can be monitored easily for physical stresses of flight. So, it came to be that the first Earthling to go to space was a pooch who blasted off on November 3, 1957. Sputnik 2, the world's second artificial satellite (after Sputnik 1), was launched by the Soviet Union from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. There was a passenger on board and her name was Laika (Russian for "Barker").

Meet Laika

Laika was a mutt, basically part Siberian Husky. She was rounded up off the streets of Moscow and trained for space travel. Unfortunately, her ride to space was not designed to be recovered and when the batteries maintaining her oxygen supply died four days later, so did she... or so the official story went. Recent information indicates that for the first few hours after launch, Laika's heart beat normally, cabin pressure stayed steady and oxygen levels remained constant. About five hours later, the telemetry system began to fail. Laika probably died at that point. The satellite carrying her remains, reentered Earth's atmosphere on April 14, 1958, and both were incinerated.

More Dogs (and other Animals) in Space

In 1960, the USSR was starting to test the Vostok spacecraft. On July 28, the dogs Bars (Panther or Lynx) and Lisichka (Little Fox) were killed when their rocket booster exploded during launch.

The next attempt at launching an animal into space was more successful. Strelka (Little Arrow) and Belka (Squirrel), along with 40 mice, 2 rats and a number of plants, were launched August 19, 1960 aboard Sputnik 5 (AKA Korabl'-Sputnik-2). They orbited the Earth 18 times. Later, Strelka had a litter of six healthy puppies. One of the puppies, called Pushinka, was given to President John F. Kennedy as a gift. Pushinka caught the eye of the Kennedy dog, Charlie, and when the pair had puppies, JFK called them Pupniks, in honor of the Soviet satellites.

Problems in Space Flight

The rest of 1960 wasn't as kind to the canine world or the Soviet space program. On December 1, Pchelka (Little Bee) and Mushka (Little Fly) were launched aboard Korabl-Sputnik-3 (AKA Sputnik 6). The dogs spent a day in orbit, but upon reentry, the rocket and its passengers were burned up.

On December 22, another Vostok prototype was launched carrying Damka (Little Lady) and Krasavka (Beauty or Pretty Girl). The upper rocket stage failed and the launch had to be aborted. Damka and Krasavka completed a suborbital flight and were recovered safely.

1961 was a good year for the Soviets and their four-legged cosmonauts. Sputnik 9 (AKA Korabl-Sputnik-4) was launched on March 9th, carrying Chernushka (Blackie) on a one-orbit mission. The flight was a success and Chernushka was recovered successfully.

Sputnik 10 (AKA Korabl-Sputnik-5) launched on March 25 with Zvezdochka (Little Star) and a dummy cosmonaut. It is said that Yuri Gagarin named Zvezdochka. Her one-orbit mission was a success. On April 12, Yuri Gagarin followed the dog he had named into space to become the first human in space.

was launched on February 22, 1966 with pooches Verterok (Breeze) and Ugolyok (Little Piece of Coal). It landed safely on March 16, 1966 after a 22-day flight, setting a canine record for time in space.

No More Dogs in Space

Although other animals have traveled into space in the intervening years, the "Golden Age" of canine cosmonauts ended with the Kosmos 110 flight. More animals have since been sent to space, including insects and mice to the International Space Station, and more recently a monkey was sent up by the Iranian space agency. In general, agencies are more careful about sending animals up, partly due to the expense, and also due to some ethical concerns raised about safety of animals in flight. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.