In the New York Times’ “Science Times” section of 4 November, Dana Jennings, an editor at the Times, published a review of a new book by Olesya Turkina called simply Soviet Space Dogs (translated from the Russian by Damon Murray and Inna Cannon; FUEL Publishing, 2014). Turkina, a research fellow at St. Petersburg’s State Russian Museum, relates the history of the Soviet space program of the 1950s and ’60s by telling the stories of the canine cosmonauts launched in the rockets and Sputniks of the USSR in early experiments before humans, starting with Col. Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961, were sent up. Though some seven nations have sent animals into space, including the U.S., only the Soviet Union made a practice of using dogs (China seems to have sent two dogs into space in a single flight).
I don’t know how many people who read ROT occasionally are old enough to remember the beginning of the space race, which began in earnest on 4 October 1957 with the flight of Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. I was not quite 11 and just starting 5th grade when we listened to the launch reported on a radio our teacher’d brought into the classroom so we could hear the world-shaking event live. (Needless to say, the same procedure was followed on 31 January 1958 when Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, was launched into space.) All of this, including Gagarin’s first flight, when I was in 8th grade, and then Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight on 20 February 1962 (I was a 15-year-old prep school freshman by then) were objects of endless fascination for me and most of my peers (and, I daresay, our parents as well). This was science, this was modernity, this was adventure.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was mesmerized by our new, young president, John F. Kennedy, whose election in 1960 was the first in which I took an active interest. (I suppose part of my focus came from the fact that JFK’s Republican opponent was Vice President Richard Nixon whose daughters were my schoolmates.) It felt personal somehow, not like the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 when I was 9, going on 10 (I barely even remembered the first Eisenhower election: I was 5!). I still have vivid memories of the Kennedy inauguration, when the famously hatless president exhorted us—and believe me, he was talking directly to me and my friends—to “ask what you can do for your country.” (It turned out, unbeknownst to me at the time, JFK was addressing my father as well; later that year, he left private business and joined the U.S. Foreign Service.) I sincerely believed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” even though I was too young then to take it up myself—but I felt as if this new era was mine in a way. My father, who had turned 42 three days before the vote, had a similar sense: he confided in me that this election had been the first in which he felt the candidates were more like his older brothers than his father (he told me once he’d cast his first presidential ballot in Franklin Roosevelt’s third campaign, when Dad was 22 and FDR was 58).
Not long after that remarkable inaugural address, JFK made another now-famous speech that also had resonance for me even at that young age. On 25 May 1961, the president stood before Congress and declared that the U.S. should “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” I don’t know how many people, hearing that promise, believed it literally—but, not knowing any better, I did. After all, wasn’t this the United States of America? Wasn’t this the 1960s? We were at the vanguard of history, weren’t we? What could possibly prevent us from fulfilling JFK’s magnificent pledge? For probably most of my generation, the Baby Boomers, those of us just entering our teen years in the new, modern decade of ceaseless prosperity, television, jet planes, and rockets when the only war was a cold one, the exploration of space, until then the purview of science fiction and fantasy, was the most exciting and important human endeavor ever conceived. Even as the war in Southeast Asia usurped our attention, broke our hearts, and dampened our spirits in the years to come—before that anticipated moon landing on 20 July 1969—space flights were always events of immense excitation. We may not have sat glued to the radio for the later ones (I was actually out of the country in July 1969, for instance) like we did in that 5th-grade classroom in 1957, but we paid close attention nonetheless.
Now, we all knew that the space programs used animals as test passengers. The U.S. tended to concentrate on monkeys and apes, and occasionally the animals died on the flight. (The first dogs to die on a mission were Lisa, Russian for “Vixen,” and Dezik on 29 July 1951 when the module’s parachute failed to deploy.) I guess what we youngsters didn’t know—because it wasn’t reported or publicized—was that in the earliest test launches, the animal passengers weren’t expected to survive. Later, when I was a little older and more aware, as fascinated as I was with space exploration, I felt twinges of fear and sadness for the animals who hadn’t volunteered for the missions but were made to risk their lives for our benefit. I don’t know why, though, but the primates we sent aloft didn’t get my sympathy to the same extent as the dogs sent up by the Soviets. Maybe this was because I never “knew” a monkey or a chimp, but doggies were part of my life; we had dogs as pets from the early ’50s until we went overseas in 1962. (I missed having a dog so much that as soon as I settled in New York City as an adult, I adopted a dog and had a canine as a pet for the next three decades. Readers of ROT can check this out by reading my two doggie posts, “Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009, and “Thespis,” 10 February 2010.)
(There’s a small irony in this report in that I named the first dog I had as an adult on my own “Sobaka,” which is the Russian word for ‘dog.’ The illustration accompanying Dana Jennings’s book review was a poster of one of the early canine cosmonauts with a caption that reads in Russian: pervyi passazhir sputnika ‑sobaka “laika”—which means “The First Passenger Of Sputnik –The Dog “Laika.”)
In the 1950s and ’60s, the USSR sent up 57 missions, both orbital and sub-orbital, with dogs as test passengers to gauge how humans would fare in space. Little was known about the effects of space flight on the living body and no one was even sure if humans could survive the launch, the departure from Earth’s atmosphere, or the weightless vacuum of space itself. The actual number of individual dogs who flew on Soviet rockets was smaller than 57 because several animals flew more than once, and most survived the flight. The few who died in space were the victims of technical malfunctions such as hull penetrations or failures of the descent parachutes or life-support systems; but Laika, the first dog who went into orbit, was never expected to return to Earth since the technology for reentry from orbit hadn’t yet been developed. The last Soviet space dog flight was in 1966.
The Soviet scientists felt dogs, trained at the Institute of Aviation Medicine in Moscow, were easier to train and more capable of enduring long periods of inactivity than other animals. The preferred dogs for the test flights in the USSR were strays picked up on the streets and in the alleys of Moscow because the scientists felt they would be more able to endure the harshness and stresses of space than dogs used to living in homes. The testers assumed that street animals had already learned to withstand hunger and extreme cold. Small, robust female mongrels were the scientists’ choices in the belief that they would be more likely to stand up to the rigorous training. Small animals—no more than 14 inches long and 13-15 pounds—were necessary because of the confined space of the early space modules and bitches were used because the clinicians deemed their calmer nature more suitable for the flight conditions and because the animals’ space suits had an apparatus for the collection of waste specially designed only for females. (The leg-lifting necessity for males was a problem as well.)
In addition, the dogs had to be photogenic, even-tempered, and energetic for the propaganda the missions were sure to generate. All the photos of the space dogs that I saw, every one of them cute and intelligent-looking, looked a lot like my Jack Russell-mix, Thespis! (Thespie’d have been too big for the program: he weighed in at about 25 pounds.)
As part of their training, the dogs were made to stand still for long periods and confined to smaller and smaller cubicles for 15 to 20 days at a stretch to prepare them for the constrictions of the space capsule. (The dogs could stand, sit, or lie down, but there was no room in the capsule to turn around.) Other regimens included wearing space suits and riding flight simulators and centrifuges that replicated the force, speed, and noise of a rocket launch. (These machines left the animals with increased pulse and elevated blood pressure.) The test animals all received a special diet of high-nutrition gel to help them bear the rigors of space flight and confinement. The test dogs were trained to eat this special food that would be their sustenance in space.
As I indicated, several of the experimental dogs died in the service of the Soviet space program, but those who survived their space flights, though some suffered adverse after-effects (tooth loss, gallstones, constipation, and restlessness, for example), lived out their days in the loving care of the scientists and lab technicians of the IAM. One bitch, Strelka, who flew in 1960, returned to whelp six pups, one of whom, Pushinka (“Fluffy”), was sent by Premier Nikita Khrushchev to three-year-old Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, in June 1961. Some became canine heroes and celebrities, appearing on radio and TV (what do you suppose a dog does on radio? It’s sort of like ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on the air in the ’30s!) and getting their photos in the press. They even made “personal” appearances alongside human celebs and a photograph of some of the doggie space travelers’ descendants is displayed at the museum of the NPP Zvezda company (Research and Development Production Enterprise Zvezda; the name means ‘star’ in Russian) in Tomilino, Russia, outside Moscow (the manufacturer of space suits for the Russian space program and ejector seats for fighter jets).
Years later, looking back at the costs and benefits of the early space program in the Soviet Union, one senior scientist expressed regret at the deaths of the test dogs. Of Laika, he said: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog . . . .”
In his review of Turkina’s Soviet Space Dogs, Jennings named four of the scores of dogs the Soviets sent into space: Laika, Mishka, Belka, and Strelka. Let’s have a look at their stories.
Before orbital flights, the space program of the Soviet Union shot 12 canines into Earth’s upper atmosphere, just shy of outer space. (Some of the vehicles broke through the atmospheric barrier and so technically flew into space.) The first Earth-born creature, aside from microbes, officially to be catapulted into space, and the first animal to orbit the Earth, however, was Laika (the name means “Barker”). Possibly part husky or Samoyed and part terrier, the approximately three-year-old Laika was launched into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 3 November 1957 aboard Sputnik 2 atop a modified SS-6 ICBM. Laika, the name by which she became known to the world, like many of her fellow space dogs, had several names at various times. She was originally named Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) and was also known as Zhuchka (“Little Bug”) and Limonchik (“Little Lemon”). The press in the U.S. dubbed her “Muttnik,” a pun on the orbital module Sputnik. (Sputnik is just the Russian word for ‘satellite’; it literally means ‘co-traveler.’)
After Laika was picked up from the streets of Moscow, she was kept for training at the IAM like her fellow space dogs. The even-tempered, 11-pound mutt, described by her trainers as “quiet and charming,” was prepped for the Sputnik 2 flight at the Moscow lab with two other canines, Albina (a woman’s name, comparable to “Blanche”) and Mushka (“Little Fly”), who didn’t fly with Laika but went up on other flights. Albina, who’d already flown twice in sub-orbital missions, was Laika’s backup passenger and Mushka was the “control dog,” kept on the ground and monitored to test the gauges on board. The three canine cosmonauts went through the training regimen I outlined earlier.
The Sputnik 2 mission was intended to repeat the spectacular success of the first orbital flight, attracting the world’s attention to the Soviet space program. Khrushchev’s scientists decided in October on an orbital flight with a canine passenger. This left only a month to design and build the spacecraft in which Laika would ride. The mission was to be a test to see if a living creature could survive in space as well as a chance to take instrumental measurements of the sun’s radiation and cosmic rays. The craft was equipped with rather rudimentary technology and provisions: enough of the special food for seven days, devices to regulate the oxygen level and clean the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a temperature regulator to keep Laika cool, instruments to measure her heart rate, respiration, and other vital signs.
The dogs were prepared at the Moscow lab and then flown to Baikonur Cosmodrome. At the launch site, the dogs’ training was continued as they were placed inside the capsule to get used to the confinement and the feeding system. Laika was installed aboard Sputnik 2 three days before the launch while final preparations were made. The mission staff all knew that she wouldn’t be coming back.
Sputnik 2 was launched in the early morning of 3 November 1957 (reports of the exact time vary between 5:30 a.m. and 7:22 a.m.). When the rocket reached orbit, the nose cone containing Laika’s module was separated, but some of the technology malfunctioned, likely because of the rush-job to construct the capsule, and the heat-regulation system couldn’t function properly. Temperatures inside the module rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and Laika’s monitors showed she was under tremendous stress. Between five and seven hours after lift-off, after Sputnik 2’s fourth orbit, Laika’s readings indicated no signs of life. These facts weren’t revealed until 2002; for decades, various accounts of Laika’s death were rumored, including that she’d died of oxygen starvation or that she’d been euthanized as planned with poisoned food. On 14 April 1958, over five months after its launch, Sputnik 2, with Laika’s remains on board, fell out of orbit and disintegrated on reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.
Like some of her successors in the canine space program, Laika became a folk hero. Her photograph in a space suit and helmet appeared in newspapers and magazines, and her portrait was affixed to just about anything someone could put it on: toys, candy wrappers, cookie cans, matchboxes, handkerchiefs, postcards, envelopes, stamps, badges and lapel pins, and commemorative plates. There were even Laika brand cigarettes. But Laika became a symbol, the representation of all the animals who were thrust into space to serve the human quest for new frontiers, sometimes at the loss of their lives. A memorial to the first dog to orbit Earth was unveiled at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, on 12 April—Cosmonautics Day (the anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight, in anticipation of which Laika’s life was sacrificed)—in 2008.
Mishka (colloquialism for “Little Bear” similar to “Teddy” in English; also a man’s nickname that’s equivalent to “Mikey”) seems to have made two sub-orbital flights. Little seems to have been recorded about Mishka’s flights and the names by which the space dogs were known were sometimes reused so it’s not always easy to determine if all the canines called Mishka are the same animal. She seems to have gone up aboard a Soviet R-1B rocket on 15 August 1951 with another dog named Chizik and again on 28 August with Chizik. Both flights soared to a 100-mile apogee and both the dogs were safely recovered after the first flight, but the mission failed on the second outing and the animals died. (Other records say that Mishka and Chizik survived that second launch and Mishka flew again aboard an R-1D rocket on 2 July 1954 with another dog named Damka—“Little Lady”—but while her companion survived, Mishka died.) While later orbital flights had pressurized flight capsules, earlier sub-orbital test flights such as Mishka’s didn’t and the earliest pressure suits were still largely experimental—though there’s no record that these facts had any bearing on Mishka’s demise in flight.
(Mishka was also the name of the bear mascot of the XXII Olympiad in Moscow in 1980. A common name for toy or fictional bears in Russian, its popularity probably stems from the alliterative name Mishka Medved, or “Mikey the Bear,” in the same way animal characters in English are named Tony the Tiger and Rocky Raccoon. The popularity of the nickname for bear characters—the bear has always been associated with Russia both among Russians and among outsiders—has made it a common name for other animal pets, particularly dogs. There were many canine cosmonauts named Mishka in the ’50s and ’60s, while, for instance, there was only one Laika even as she became a symbol of patriotic sacrifice—however unwitting on the dog’s part. Some of the names seem to be untranslatable or purely colloquial, such as Dezik, a nickname but I know not what for, and Chizik.)
Belka (“Little Squirrel” or “Whitey”; belyi is Russian for ‘white’) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”), like their names, were a matched pair as far as their history in the Soviet space program was concerned. They flew into orbit together on 19 August 1960 aboard Sputnik 5, staying aloft one day (about 18 orbits) before returning safely to Earth. (The two 12-pound mongrels were actually substitutes for the original selections, Bars— “Panther” or “Lynx”—also known as Chaika, or “Seagull,” and Lisichka, or “Little Fox,” who’d died when their rocket exploded on the launch pad.) Along with their fellow passenger animals—a rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, a swarm of fruit flies—they were the first Earth-born creatures to survive an orbital flight.
The Soviet space scientists monitoring the passengers’ vital signs at first became worried when video transmissions from the Sputnik 5 module didn’t show the slightest movement from either dog during the first three orbits. On the fourth orbit, though, Belka shuddered a little and vomited (which became a factor in limiting early human flights to a single orbit). The two canine cosmonauts seemed to snap out of their torpor and for the remaining dozen orbits appeared more animated. The success of the flight prompted the Soviet government to release the film of the flight a few days afterward, showing the two dogs, one in a green space suit and one in red, doing somersaults in the weightlessness of the capusle. Strelka appeared apprehensive and uneasy, but Belka seemed to enjoy herself, barking and playing.
Belka and Strelka were immediately celebrated in children’s story books and cartoons and a Russian animated film entitled Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs (Belka i Strelka. Zvezdnye sobaki) was released in 2010 (2013 in the U.S., as Space Dogs). Especially popular with children, the dogs toured schools and orphanages. The two doggies even posed with visiting American pianist Van Cliburn, who hugged Belka and Strelka on camera. The pair never flew another mission, living out their lives in honored retirement at IAM. The dogs died of old age and their bodies were preserved and are on view in Russia’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow (also known as the Memorial Museum of Space Exploration). Belka’s displayed in a glass case in the museum, but Strelka is still traveling around the globe as part of a touring exhibition. A 16-foot memorial statue of the two canine space explorers peering out of a giant space helmet is planned outside the Zvezda plant.
As I wrote earlier, in retirement Strelka had six puppies, including the one named Pushinka who was presented to JFK’s daughter, Caroline, and lived in the White House. Pushinka’s sire was Pushok (“Fluff”), a lab dog who never made it to space. (Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named Charlie in turn had four pups whom the president humorously called pupniks, two of whom, Butterfly and Streaker, were given to Midwestern families. The other two grand-puppies of Strelka and Pushok, White Tips and Blackie, lived for a time at the Kennedy home on Squaw Island in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, but were eventually given away to Kennedy family friends. Pushinka’s descendants are still alive today.
Eight months after Sputnik 5 bearing Belka and Strelka returned safely to Earth, and following some half dozen more canine flights, the first human space passenger flew around the planet. Cosmonaut Gagarin is reported to have quipped: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?”