Dogs are awesome and important. Police dogs help find criminals, sniff drugs and patrol places like prisons or high-security areas. Therapy dogs comfort disaster survivors and facilitate disabled people. Herding dogs assist farmers round up sheep and cattle, and last but not least, dogs make very good companions for humans. That is why dogs are called “man’s best friend”.
But did you know that dogs were the pioneers to pave the space-travel highway, making it safe for humans to venture past the earth’s atmosphere, testing equipment, life support and communication systems — these were the Russian dogs that made history in space travel.
About 50 years back, scientists believed that humans would be unable to survive the conditions of outer space, so engineers viewed flights by animals as a necessary prelude to human missions. The first dog cosmonauts were chosen from a wide selection of the stray dogs, picked from streets and backyards. They were deemed the most suitable candidates since they were unassuming, easy-going and open to taming, as compared to pampered dogs. Besides years of life in the street was their strong point, as it had taught them to survive in extreme conditions.
The dogs went through tough training to get them ready to fly. Wearing a space suit that was specifically designed for them, they had to remain almost immobile throughout the flight in a specially constructed safety cabin. A number of monitors continuously scrutinised the effects of changes in temperature, weightlessness and pressure.
Several dogs completed suborbital flights. Some of the flights were successful, others ended tragically. A new milestone in space exploration is linked with the name of Laika, a stray mutt, who on November 1957, became the first animal to orbit Earth on the spacecraft Sputnik 2. This quiet and very affectionate dog was the first “tailed” astronaut and also the first one to be sacrificed for the space exploration ambitions of man. Sputnik 2 remained in orbit another 162 days before burning up.
In those days the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed, thus there was no expectation of the crew’s return. Laika effectively withstood all the complications caused during the take-off of the rocket, and remained absolutely fine for four spins of the satellite around Earth. Due to the lack of reliable temperature control system, the inner temperature during the flight climbed to high degrees, which caused the death of the dog from overheating. But her historic, sacrificial flight provided scientists with valuable data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments.
Next, on August 20, 1960, Russian spacecraft Vostok was launched from the Baikonur spaceport, carrying two dogs — Belka (meaning ‘squirrel’ in Russian) and Strelka (meaning ‘arrow’), 40 mice, two rats and a variety of plants. They immediately shot to world fame as the first-ever living creatures to reach the orbit, make historical spins around our planet and return safely. After spending a day in the space, a rescue capsule was ejected from the ship that safely brought the crew back to Earth at the ordained location.
After analysing the results of the mission, scientists came to the conclusion that space was not dangerous for humans, and now, after the successful return of Belka and Strelka, the idea of a man-controlled space journeys rapidly turned from dream into reality. Eight months after this trip into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth and return safely.
Meanwhile, our four-legged space voyagers seemed to care least about the fuss around their “celestial expedition”. They just enjoyed the opportunity to finally return to a normal life of a dog with all its simple joys. Besides, they felt very flattered by the attention to their personas. Indeed, Belka and Strelka were welcomed guests in every part of the country, especially popular with children, as they were taken to kindergartens, schools and orphanages. They were the most desirable guests at every occasion — be it press conferences, scientific symposiums or meetings with the leadership of the country.
Various cards and calendars were printed in honour of the furry space explorers; their pictures were spotted on many banners, placards and posters. At that time there were no more popular dogs in the world than those two ordinary pooches.
Their fame for many years overshadowed the popularity of other “star” dogs. Until now, many people believed that Belka and Strelka were the only dogs who entered the extra-terrestrial space. However, is not entirely true.
In fact, Dezik and Gypsy were the first dogs to make a suborbital flight on July, 1951, when the missile R-1 took a special hermetically sealed cabin with two astronauts on the 110-km altitude. The flight in the stratosphere was completed with a parachute landing and both participants were recovered unharmed.
On April, 2008, a monument to the first the first earthling in space, Laika, was unveiled in Russian capital Moscow. Six-foot tall memorial features a booster rocket, which carries a proud two-year-old mixed breed atop.