Saturday, 3 November 2012

Laika - A True Pioneer

Laika - Space Pioneer

Today is the anniversary of the 1957 launch of Sputnik 2, which carried the first living being into orbit a mere month after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite.  This was more by accident than design.  Following the successful launch of Sputnik 1, Premier Khrushchev contacted the space programme's Chief Designer, S.P. Korolev, and the demanded a 'spectacular' in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution - only three week's away!

Accordingly, on 9 October, Pravda declared that "The Soviet Union will launch a sputnik carrying animals as passengers.  Detailed observations will be made of their behaviour".

Sputnik 2 was a rough-and-ready adaption of Sputnik 1, adding a container used in the geophysical flights of the previous year and added a cosmic ray detector (the flight produced significant data on the Van Allen Belt).

Whereas NASA preferred to use experimental apes in its space programme, the Soviet Union used dogs - it had a history of utilising them in research going back beyond the physiologist Pavlov.  There was a whole series of 'space dogs' used throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Laika (the name translates as 'Barker' but is a Russian name for a type of small dog) was a mongrel bitch.  She had been a stray in Moscow when captured and was selected for the mission because of her even temperament.  Her trainers nicknamed her Kudryavka ('Little Curly'), and she was generally referred to in the American press as 'Curly'.  Training included confinement in small spaces, sessions in centrifuges and the simulation of loud noises and vibration.  There is no doubt that this caused severe discomfort to the space dogs (as was also the case with the apes used NASA and other animals sent into space).

Statute of Laika in Star City

Officially, Laika suffered no ill-effects during the flight and died a week into the mission when the air ran out (there was never any intention of returning the module).  This caused widespread protest in the West from animal welfare groups.  However, it was reveled in 2002 that in reality the insulation had come free at orbital insertion, causing a rapid rise in temperature and a painful death for Laika five to seven hours into the flight.

The heroic portrait of Laika heading this blog is by Phineas X. Jones and can be seen on his website.

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