The story of Laika, who was just a dog

This year was both the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the sixtieth anniversary of the launch into space of the dog who came to be known as Laika. However, if we look more closely, this is actually the same anniversary: the mission of Sputnik 2 was itself planned in great haste to coincide with the revolutionary celebrations of 7 November 1957, and with the major speech calling for world peace that Nikita Khrushchev planned to give in front of a special session of the Supreme Soviet. That speech was given much greater force and weight by the presence of a dog in space. Even if­ – as we now know – by then she was already dead.

Laika was a stray dog recruited on the streets of Moscow. Unlike its US counterpart, the Soviet space program preferred dogs to monkeys and apes, and strays to other types of dogs due to their proven ability to survive in harsh conditions. The nameless female, of two or three years of age, joined other trainees in a facility that had prepared other dogs for previous sub-orbital flights. Her trainers gave her several names, including Kudryavka, Zhuchka and even Limonchik – a male name – but by now the program had settled exclusively on females, whose suits for obvious reasons were easier to design. As news of the mission started to spread from Moscow, she was initially known to the media simply as ‘the dog’, except in France where she became ‘Frisette’. Then it was reported that she was a laika, with a small L, denoting a small-boned breed related to the Eskimo. And that was the name that stuck, at least among those who didn’t insist on calling her Muttnik.

The story of Laika is best followed through the contemporary international press of the time rather than through later summations or revisions. It’s only by reading these reports that we can get a full sense of the import of her mission and its reverberations around the world.

It barely needs to be pointed out that the space race wasn’t a mere extension of the arms race: it was the arms race. In the second half of 1957, in quick succession, the Soviets successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, sent the first satellite into space, the Sputnik, and launched a second satellite – the one with Laika on board. All launches were viewed uniformly from the outset as expansions of the Soviet Union’s military. In the specific case of Sputnik 2, the spacecraft didn’t just carry a dog; it was also six times heavier than the first Sputnik, in part so it could carry a dog. The implications of this didn’t escape analysts or even regular commentators: a satellite weighing half a tonne could carry other things beside an animal, and an array of scientific equipment. By contrast, in December 1957 the United States tried to launch a satellite of its own, the Vanguard TV3. It weighed 1.2 kilograms and went up four feet (not a typo) before exploding. It was succeeded a month later by Explorer 1, which did manage to leave the atmosphere but was still only as large as two basketballs, and significantly smaller than the first Sputnik.

The one or two unnamed US senators quoted by the Times of London who described the launch of Sputnik 2 as ‘a second Pearl Harbour’ were certainly exaggerating. But when UK Labour MP Aneurin Bevan argued that the launch proved not only that the Soviets had made far more technical progress than previously thought, but also that ‘cities in the United States may now be in the same position as we have been for six years,’ he appeared to be correct. The Puerto Rican El Mundo published, and the New York Times reprinted in translation, the following cartoon illustrating how the Soviet satellites were viewed by many in the Western bloc:


The presence of the dog did little to soften this imagery, but it provided the media with a second focal point and a parallel storyline. The question of whether Laika might return alive was briefly left open, but within days Tass and Pravda stopped providing updates on her condition, and the program made it clear that it had not been possible to plan for her safe return. She would be euthanised a week into the mission – it was claimed – via the administration of drugs in her gelatinous food. US authorities didn’t offer much criticism on this point, probably due to the fact that they had killed at least five monkeys and chimps, all of them called Alfred, in as many experimental rocket flights before Yorick – also known as Alfred VI – made it safely back to earth in 1951. (By contrast, all of the Soviet dogs who preceded Laika survived their missions.) In Britain, however, there were widespread protests, and the Canine Defence League called for a minute of silence every day at 11am until the safe return of Laika. A UK newspaper, the Daily Mirror, was the first to get a Soviet scientist to admit that Sputnik 2 had no braking system to assist with re-entry.

Responding to criticism, Yuri Ivanovich Modin, the Soviet Ambassador to London, explained – as reported by the Times – that, ‘during the war his family had an Alsatian which they loved but which they had turned over to the army for war service.’ There it was, again: the conflation of scientific and military feats, the only faithful key for understanding the story of Laika as it unfolded. Twenty days after the launch of Sputnik 2, by the time that the death of Laika had been made official, a New York Times editorial put it most truculently but also most accurately: ‘The dog Laika, frozen and dead hundreds of miles in the air, is still a part of the soviet strength.’ It was the strength that had backed Khrushchev’s attempt to set the terms of global disarmament in his speech on the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and which the United States and its allies, naturally, had rejected.

The same editorial went on to make a more sensational claim:

The so-called government of the workers and peasants, the new democracy laid down by Marx and Lenin, is robbing the world by blackmail in these times of most of the fruits of civilization. Schoolhouse, libraries, hospitals, homes, all the happy and wholesome amenities of life must take second place because Russia throws across the midnight sky the blazing arrogance of her new weapons.

This was the rationalisation that Western countries had settled on: that the launch of satellites in space was proof not of the ingenuity and technical accomplishment of the Soviet Union, but rather of the advantage that authoritarian governments enjoyed over states in which the budget for military research was in civilian hands. As NATO secretary general Paul-Henry Spaak had just declared, ‘[w]e cannot do this. We cannot choose between the sputnik and the washing machine.’


Laika was never given a choice, either. At home, she was a heroine, used to sell anything from cigarettes to stamps to razor blades. Abroad, she was the symbol of a foreign power’s capacity to rain nuclear death from above, at all latitudes, or to dictate the terms of a peace that would no doubt be as cold as the war that preceded it. In reality, she was just a small stray dog who died a death of almost unimaginable loneliness, the real circumstances of which were not revealed until 2002.

For decades, the official account was that Laika had died painlessly a week into the mission. In fact, the timeframe imposed by Khrushchev on the launch of Sputnik 2 had made it impossible to test the hastily designed air conditioning system. Consequently, the temperature inside the capsule climbed rapidly, and a panicked Laika died of stress and heat exposure during her fourth or fifth orbit, mere hours after the launch. That her fate remained hidden for so long is perhaps the single strongest indication of her propaganda value. Officials must have judged that Khrushchev’s speech would be diminished, had the fiction of a living dog in space not been allowed to act as its backdrop. Knowing that she was a pawn in a geopolitical game affecting the lives of millions, however, does nothing to diminish the tragic absurdity of her death. On the contrary. It is not sentimental to mourn Laika, precisely because of the significance that was attached to the concrete fact of her being alive in her capsule.

Speaking at a Moscow press conference in 1998, Oleg Gazenko – a scientist attached to the mission – expressed his regret in sombre and sympathetic tones: ‘The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.’ Greater crimes have been and continue to be committed in the name of science, let alone military supremacy. But what makes Laika’s story indelible is that we know so much about it. We simply know too much about Laika to forget that she was just a stray dog, and that she was treated so very unfairly.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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