Remembering Laika

Selection_001‘Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, do not harass them, do not deprive them of their happiness, do not work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on your superiority to animals: they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it and leave the traces of foulness after you.’

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, 1821-1881

Some of us a long way into our adult years can recall particular events from our childhood days with the same clarity as though they had occurred last week. As I write these words, I am transported back to a frosty winter’s evening in 1957, standing by my father’s side in the middle of the Irish countryside side gazing up at the cloudless night sky watching what appeared to be a moving star as it crossed overhead.

I was too young at the time to fully appreciate the significance of what I was seeing but I have never forgotten that evening and it has since resonated in my life down the years in ways I could never have imagined then.

The date was the 3rd of November 1957 and the ‘moving star’ was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 2 as it transported through space the dog Laika, the first living creature to orbit the earth. I had a dog of my own at the time and was thrilled by the idea of Laika’s amazing space adventure. Soon after, however, the joy turned to tears when it became known that Laika would not be returning to earth and was destined to die in space.

Laika’s space flight made headlines around the world and was for a time the topic of conversation for people everywhere from Manchester to Moscow. It gave a boost to the Soviet space programme but there were also widespread protests outside of the Soviet Union by members of the public in different countries and by international animal welfare organisations, especially when it became known that it was never intended to bring the dog back and that she was to be sacrificed in this way. Protesters gathered outside Soviet embassies across continents as well as at the United Nations in New York. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was inundated with calls about the issue to such an extent that it overloaded the charity’s telephone system so they advised callers to instead make their feelings known to the Soviet embassy in London.

Selection_002So, how did it come about that this humble little stray dog from the streets of Moscow found herself the centre of global attention? This was of course the era of the cold war, with intense competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in every walk of life but especially in what became known as the space race. A month before Laika’s flight the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, had been successfully launched to great acclaim and the Russian premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was keen to capitalise on the prestige gained through this achievement by staging something more spectacular to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. He duly persuaded Sergei Korolev, the head of the Soviet space programme, to accelerate his plans to put a living creature into orbit and so the space programme went into overdrive, with round the clock working to try and achieve this objective.

It had already been decided to use a dog for the programme and a group of stray dogs from the streets of Moscow had been rounded up and were undergoing intensive training at a facility in Moscow to prepare one of them for the demands of the flight. The reasoning behind using a stray dog was the belief that the harsh conditions it had to endure living on the streets would make it better adapted to cope with the rigours of the flight.
It was during this process that Laika was selected as she was found to have a placid temperament and responded best to confinement in the space capsule.

After the training was completed, Laika was transferred to the launch site in Kazakhstan. Due to some technical issues, three days before the launch she had to be strapped into the capsule, which was then installed on the R-7 rocket. And so, on the 3rd of November the rocket blasted off from the Baikonour Cosmosdrome and Laika began her fateful journey into space history.

The early reports by the Soviet space agency of Sputnik 2’s progress were upbeat but later on a damage limitation approach had to be adopted when criticism about the use of a dog in this way began to escalate around the globe. The official version was that Laika would be humanely euthanised within the capsule after a week or so. In reality, Laika had already died just a few hours into the flight, due mainly to a failure of the cooling system within the capsule, causing it to drastically overheat. It was not until years later that this was finally acknowledged.

After Sputnik 2, the Soviet space programme continued apace, leading eventually to successful space flights for other dogs who were safely returned to earth, including Belka and Strelka who have been immortalised by the taxidermist at the Cosmonauts Museum in Moscow. An interesting footnote to this is Strelka’s post-space life: she went on to have pups, one of which, Pushinka, was given to President Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, by Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka subsequently had offspring of her own so it is conceivable that there are dogs today living somewhere in the United States who are the canine ancestors of a Soviet space dog.

In the months that followed, Laika’s flight was commemorated across the Soviet Union and beyond by postage stamps, books, songs and even a brand of cigarettes. Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the earth for another five months before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and burning up. The ultimate goal of the Soviet space programme was finally achieved on April 12 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth.
For some, Laika’s flight was a symbol of mankind’s heroic endeavours to explore beyond the confines of our earthly existence, ‘going forth where no one had gone before,’ but for others it represented yet another example of our ruthless exploitation of other living creatures for dubious benefits. Even those who worked closely on the space programme had their misgivings: in 1998, Dr. Oleg Gazenko, one of the Soviet space scientists who had worked on the Sputnik 2 programme, said in an interview about Laika’s flight: “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.”

Today, Laika is commemorated by a monument erected in 2008 adjacent to the institute in Moscow where she underwent her pre-flight training. Whenever I’m in Moscow I make a point of visiting it because of the emotional attachment I have to her memory. I’m obviously not alone in feeling this way because when I was last there the monument was decorated in red roses left by previous visitors.

I have spent a good part of my life working to promote compassion and respect for the other living creatures who share this planet with us and Laika’s fate was one of the defining events that influenced me in this regard. She is assured of her place in the annals of space exploration but, whether it is expressed by monuments, red roses or animal activism, Laika will be long remembered too by those of us who care about the ethical issues that surround the way we use animals to serve our interests in the modern world.

NB. Laika’s monument is located in the courtyard of the Institute of Military Medicine at Petrovsko-Razumovskaya Alley 12A, which is close to Petrovsky Park. The nearest metro is Dinamo on the green line.