On November 3rd, 1957 - Laika, a stray mixed breed (Siberian Husky and terrier), handpicked from the streets of Moscow, became the first living creature to orbit the Earth, and testify that space is habitable. However, it was in Laika’s death that we unlocked the mysteries of the universe. Alone in the infinite loneliness of space, Laika wandered on. A dog is man’s most loyal companion, it does not judge, nor does it hold our flaws against us. For millennia, dogs have accompanied humans in their adventures, providing endurance as well as alliance - and we are indebted to their gratuitous nature. Laika was a pioneer in spearheading space exploration, and our aeronautical advances would have been impossible without the involuntary sacrifice of this tiny creature. Pop culture has immortalised the feats of this canine, but who really was Laika - and why has she left a void in her absence. This story deeply resonates with the legend of Icarus - but is Laika the Icarus here, or is it us?
One Small Pawstep for Laika, One Major Leap for Humanity
The Soviet Union and the USA were competing in a rat race against time and space, with no concern for the collateral damage involved in their petty fight. Laika was this collateral damage. After the success of Sputnik 1, the country had much to celebrate but the Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was not satisfied. The next step after Sputnik 1 was to send a living, breathing, creature and record their experience in space temperatures - but humans were far too precious to be scapegoats, so instead - we turned to our loyal companions, and pushed them to the frontline. The engineers hastened to develop the Sputnik 2 - a spacecraft that included a pressurised compartment for a flying dog. They often worked without blueprints, and thus this experiment was already preparing for doomsday.
Laika was never meant to survive this trip to space, but was instead destined for a painless death. Her fate had already staked its claim on her, the moment she was chosen for the mission. However, who are we to determine the parameters of pain, in a lonesome spaceship? Laika’s mission was specifically designed to monitor and study the effects of space on living organisms, and that it did.
Laika, translates to ‘The Barker’, and although her future was predetermined, her last moments on earth were cherished with an outpour of humanity. One of her keepers, Vladimir Yazdovsky, took her home to play with his children before her flight, and another physician deliberately broke protocol to provide Laika with a hearty meal before take-off.
The Last Supper: Unravelling a dark truth
The truth was warped to suit the reputation of the Soviet Union, and they kept up the facade of Laika’s survival for several days despite her death within the first 103 minutes - due to the loss of the heat shield - which was indisputably a human fallacy. In the rush to put another satellite into space, the Soviet engineers had not had time to test Sputnik 2’s cooling system properly; the capsule had overheated. The noises and pressures of flight terrified Laika: Her heartbeat rocketed to triple the normal rate, and her breath rate quadrupled, yet the broadcasts claimed that Laika may make it back alive - and documents were falsified to attest to this fictitious story.
The sad truth, however, is that there was never any scope for survival. Even if things would have worked out perfectly, Laika would have died the instant the spaceship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a pity that the very spacecraft that launched Laika to her death, proved that the space was indeed livable.
Sputnik 2 orbited the planet for five months with Laika’s remains - and her space coffin eventually combusted into a shooting star. Does a mission justify the death of an innocent, one that we consider as less worthy of life than us humans. Space exploration was meant to benefit humanity, not expose our malignant side - one that prioritises the honour of the nation above individual lives.
Dogs: The First Soviet Space Pop Stars
Laika was a success story, despite its tragic turn out. Her face was printed on every object available - right from matchboxes and chocolates to even cigarettes. Her feat was memorialised in tangible objects, as well as the fabric of humanity. After learning from their errors, the space engineers sent another pair of dogs to space - Belka and Strelka, who survived the roundtrip journey, and their puppies were commemorated as goodwill ambassadors.
The impact of this Russian mission was two-fold: it grounded the Soviet Union as a pioneer of space studies, but also incited an animal rights revolution. Laika was captured, and forced into submission through gruelling lessons. These included, but were not restricted to, being spun in a centrifuge, confined to a pressure chamber, and locked inside progressively smaller cages. It was a clear case of animal cruelty, and even in death - she found no peace nor love. Apart from dogs, multiple other animals were also used as test subjects for the incurable curiosity of man - and this in itself is inexcusable. In attempting to humanise space, we cannot sacrifice the very morality of our existence.
Finding Solace in Art : The Way Forward
Laika has been the muse to several pieces of art, often being the subject of loneliness and alienation as well as symbolic of martyrdom. Her story lives on, and serves as a testament to human madness. Her cultural impact has been widespread, with museum exhibits dedicated to her limited yet timeless lifespan - her memories are preserved in short films as well as songs. A recent documentary titled ‘Space Dogs’ used archived footage to retell the doomed story of Laika - and the ultimate sacrifice for scientific progress. Many novelists such as Victor Pelvin, Haruki Murakami, and Jeannette Winterson have referenced this incident in their works, but perhaps the most impactful artform is her personification in poetry.
“They say that, from space, the Earth looks like a small, blue ball. I’ll throw it for you, Laika, if you’ll chase it, dart through the stratosphere like a comet, undeserving of its fate” - Brennig Davies
Laika became an emblem for cosmic loneliness, and yet people across the world collectively found comfort through her - there was love, love that confronted this cruelty of man - and demanded closure. In Laika’s demise, we discovered the true essence of humanity - and this forces us to reflect on our actions. Her death caused a symbolic rebirth, one that is rooted in kindness and compassion. Laika was destined for the stars, and that is where she lies. Amidst the groundbreaking success of Sputnik 2, there was a quiet, hollow acknowledgement of what we had lost, and what was at stake. We flew too close to the sun, we have been burned already - yet here we are again.
I hope you learn something from me. I don’t know what, but you’ll figure it out. I understand now; that last kiss to my brow was searing hot. I should have felt it coming. - Booker. W