Meet Laika, The Soviet Dog Who Was Forced To Give Her Life For The Space Race

Published April 18, 2016
Updated January 15, 2022

Also known as Muttnik, Laika the space dog made history in 1957 as the first animal to travel into Earth's orbit — and the first to die there.

Laik Or Muttnik The Soviet Dog

Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty ImagesLaika in the Sputnik 2 capsule in 1957.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is rightly credited with being the first human to enter outer space, but he was not the first earthling to enter the vast Milky Way. A few years before his groundbreaking 1961 orbit, a stray dog named Laika embarked on a suicide mission to become the first animal in space — and orbit the Earth.

At the time, the mutt’s successful launch was seen as one of Russian’s biggest victories. Laika, whose name translated to “barker,” was picked up from the streets of Moscow a few days before the launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik, the first artificial satellite ever propelled to space, had been sent into orbit only a month before.

This particular mission aimed to assess the safety of space travel for humans, with Laika chosen for her calm character and small size. On Nov. 3, 1957, she rocketed into orbit armed with nothing but a few hours with flight simulators — and training that consisted of being placed in progressively smaller cages.

While both the United States and Soviet Union had sent other animals into space for scientific studies before, those missions consisted of mere minutes in sub-orbit around Earth. None had ever truly gone into full orbit or zero-gravity conditions. Laika the dog would be the first — but tragically never returned alive.

What Was The First Animal In Space?

Born in 1954, a stray husky-spitz mix roamed the streets of Moscow for nearly three years before being captured by authorities. Named after her vocalized confusion, “Barker” would change history by providing Soviet scientists with invaluable data on orbital space flight. Laika wasn’t the first animal in space, however.

Laika The Dog Being Tested

Icarus FilmsA still from the Space Dogs documentary featuring Laika being tested before launch.

A group of fruit flies had been launched to an altitude of 42 miles on Feb. 20, 1947, in a V-2 rocket. These rockets had been developed in Nazi Germany and would bolster the Cold War space race. The 1947 launch itself aimed to study the effects of cosmic rays on living things — with the flies surviving in perfect health.

Numerous mice and monkeys would follow and be launched by American researchers between 1948 and 1951. Albert II, a rhesus monkey, reached an altitude of 83 miles on June 14, 1949, only to die in his V-2 rocket upon impact. In 1950, a mouse was sent up and photographed in weightless conditions before death.

The Soviets sent dogs Tsygan and Dezik to the edge of suborbital flight at 62 miles on July 22, 1951. The dogs survived, while the U.S. launch of a monkey named Yorick in September saw it die over New Mexico. Both nations were determined to win the space race, with proof of living beings surviving in orbit most vital.

Laika, The First Dog In Space

To the chagrin of the U.S., Sputnik became the first satellite in orbital flight on Oct. 4, 1957. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanded another “space spectacular” mission, however, which was to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. With just over a month to do so, the Soviets hastily prepared.

Laika Secured Inside Sputnik 2

OFF/AFP/Getty ImagesLaika died of overheating within five to seven hours.

After designing a new pressurize capsule intended to fit a medium-sized, living organism, the scientific team snatched a dog from the streets and named it Laika. It was clear from the very start that she would not survive, but the Soviets claimed her death would be humane.

The 1,120-pound rocket would feed the dog and transmit its vital signs until the oxygen ran out. Laika would then be fed poisoned dog food and die painlessly. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovzky and Oleg Gazenko trained three dogs for the mission, keeping them in progressively smaller cages for 20 days prior to launch.

Ultimately, Albina the dog was chosen as Laika’s backup, while Mushka the “control dog” would stay on the ground for further tests. Before launch on Nov. 3, Yazdovsky took Laika home to play with his children. He said: “Laika was quiet and charming. I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”

Placed in the capsule on Oct. 31, Laika spent three days inside before being sponged in alcohol and having sensors attached to her body. One of the technicians kissed her nose prior to liftoff, with Laika being launched at 5:30 a.m. Moscow Time. Her heart rate of 130 beats per minute soared to 240 during liftoff.

Laika Being Carried

Serge Plantureux/Corbis/Getty ImagesLaika in her spacesuit.

After three hours of weightlessness in orbital flight, her pulse settled at 102 beats per minute. Laika ate her food, but within five hours, showed no further signs of life. For years, people believed the Soviets’ story about the heroic dog and her humane treatment. But Laika’s ending was far from dignified and painless.

The Legacy Of Laika

At the 2002 World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, former Soviet scientist Dimitri Malashenkov revealed that the dog died because of stress and overheating caused by a faulty and quickly-designed temperature control system — and not because she had eaten her poisoned last meal, as initially purported.

The revolutionary new sphere didn’t survive, either. Sputnik 2 returned after five months of orbiting Earth on April 4th, 1958, and burned up while re-entering the atmosphere. As for Laika’s mission, it paved the way for untold advances in space flight, with 36 Soviet “sputpups” to follow as sacrifices for Gagarin’s 1961 mission.

Laika Statue Far And Close Up

Left: @madnur.hidayat/Instagram; Right: @lauralkite/InstagramThe Laika statue in Moscow was erected in 2008.

Years after his historic flight, Gargarin himself pondered his connection with Laika and the other dogs who preceded him as the first human in outer space.

“I am still unaware who I am,” Gagarin said. “The first man or the last dog.”

In order to properly honor the space dog, the Russian government erected a monument in 2008. Stationed near a military research facility in Moscow, it’s shaped like a rocket-shaped hand that holds a stone depiction of the pup — in the same city that she was born in and captured from.

After learning about Laika, read about Félicette, the first cat to become an astronaut. Then, learn about Ham the chimp, the NASA astronaut and first chimpanzee in space.

Teresa Cantero
Teresa is a freelance journalist and former Fulbright scholar now based in Spain. She has an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and a Bachelors in Journalism from the Universidad de Navarra.