As the world stood still on July 20, 1969, watching the lunar module Eagle land on the barren expanse of the Moon, we applauded the ingenuity of mankind and the daring spirit of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Yet, a dozen years earlier, another form of life had already beaten us to the stars, unassumingly paving the way for this "giant leap for mankind." That pioneer was Laika, a humble stray dog from Moscow.
The story of Laika the space dog
Laika's tale isn't one born from her choice, but it's compelling and deeply impactful nonetheless.
Picked up from the streets of Moscow, she was chosen for her size, gender, and resilience, attributes that scientists believed would help her survive the grueling conditions of space travel. Laika's mission, code-named Korabl-Sputnik 2, was orchestrated by the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War space race.
Launched on November 3, 1957, her spacecraft was a small module attached to Sputnik 2. Inside this cramped, hastily prepared cabin, Laika was secured in a harness, with implanted electrodes to monitor her vital signs.
The flight was meant to test the survival of life during space travel, and Laika was selected to be the passenger because she was a stray, already conditioned to harsh environments.
However, the reality of the situation was far from ideal. The mission was hurried to beat the Americans, and as a result, no provisions were made for Laika's return journey or her sustained life in space.
Once Sputnik 2 successfully made it to orbit, it circled the Earth every 103 minutes. Laika's vital signs were transmitted back to Earth, providing the scientists with valuable data. However, due to the lack of advanced technology and planning, the cabin quickly overheated and, tragically, Laika did not survive the mission.
“The temperature inside the spacecraft after the fourth orbit registered over 90 degrees,” Cathleen Lewis of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum says. “There’s really no expectation that she made it beyond an orbit or two after that.”
The truth about Laika's death was not revealed until decades later. For years, the Soviet Union stated that she had lived for several days, but in 2002, it was confirmed that she had died within hours of the launch due to stress and overheating.
The legacy of Laika's mission is thus a blend of scientific achievement and a poignant reminder of the ethical boundaries we must respect as we push for progress.
The ethics of the race to space
We can't discuss Laika without acknowledging the controversy around her mission. Laika's voyage was a one-way trip - as stated earlier, with the technology of the time, safe re-entry was never a guarantee.
Laika's life ended alone in space, a fact that brings a sobering perspective to her mission. She was a silent hero, a dog who went to space not out of choice but because we asked her to.
In retrospect, it's clear that Laika's life and sacrifice were instrumental in advancing our understanding of space and our ability to venture into it. But it's also vital to reflect on the ethics of our choices.
As we look back on the glory days of the space race, we must also reckon with the moral cost that came with it.
New technology in space travel
In the modern era of space travel, the use of animals has largely been replaced by technological advancements like satellites and rovers. Yet, the discussion around the ethical treatment of animals in scientific research is more relevant than ever.
As we continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge and abilities, it's crucial that we also work towards ensuring that our actions are guided by respect for all life and a commitment to humane practices.
With the advent of AI and emerging tech, there is even speculation that we may be entering a new space race. With billionaires diving the darkest depths of the sea, it's not too far off to imagine a future where people and their pets can voluntarily surf the stars together. But is it safe?
Lori Marino, evolutionary neurobiologist and president of The Whale Sanctuary Project would likely say no. “Animals should not be taken into space, full stop,” she says, "while human astronauts know what they are getting into, other animals do not".
So, unless we're faced with a world where space travel is our only option for keeping our soulful sidekicks alive, it's probably best to leave your little astronauts at home.
Gone but not forgotten
Laika's story is a testament to the unsung heroes of our space-faring journey, and a call to action for all of us to consider the ethical implications of our endeavors. Let's remember Laika not just as the first Earthling in orbit, but as a beacon for compassionate and respectful scientific discovery.
Lizz Caputo is the Manager of Content Strategy at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.