Laika was a dog with humble beginnings who would become a global star. The first living being to leave the Earth’s orbit, taking off 60 years ago today in the Russian satellite Sputnik on Nov. 3, 1957, the stray mutt landed a place in history.
Discovered by a talent spotter from the Russian space program on the streets, the dog met all the criteria—docile, resourceful, peed without lifting a leg, and photogenic. One of six picked to train for space travel, Laika was ultimately chosen to go for her quizzical expression, her trainer, 90-year-old biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, told the Associated Press.
Indeed, in images Laika always looked gently confused, as if she already sensed her destiny and couldn’t understand why she’d die for her charms.
Kotovska grew close to the dog and recalls that the night before Laika took off was emotional. “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time,” she says.
Laika couldn’t have survived the trip, even if things hadn’t gone wrong. The charming dog had a one-way ticket to space, though this wasn’t made clear to the world at large.
According to Le Figaro (in French), international concern for Laika sparked conversations in which Russian officials reassured critics that the dog would be safely returned to Earth in eight days. The Russians were testing whether a living being could survive weightlessness, and Laika had been trained to be comfortable in ever-smaller boxes, surviving on space rations of jellied foods, ahead of her journey.
The dog was expected to orbit the Earth, surviving for eight to 10 days;, but she was never expected to return alive, according to the biologist who trained Laika. That just wasn’t possible at the time.
Laika didn’t last even a day. She lived only a few short hours after takeoff. The satellite wasn’t sufficiently insulated from the sun’s rays and the dog quickly began overheating. She died of radiation after only nine orbits around the Earth, much earlier than even her trainer had expected.
The death was kept a secret and fake news of Laika’s safety was provided regularly in official Russian broadcasts while Sputnik orbited. The dog was doing just fine, they reported. Le Figaro’s records show that there was skepticism of these accounts but no way to disprove the news out of Moscow.
Officially, Laika was poisoned through her food after about a week to prevent a painful death when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The satellite that carried her burned on April 14, 1958.
Kotovska, who now heads a laboratory at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, and still works on preparing beings for space travel, knew the true story, of course. Still, she’s proud of Laika and her job training the cosmonaut dog, saying, ”Those nine orbits of Earth made Laika the world’s first cosmonaut—sacrificed for the sake of the success of future space missions.”