On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the very first living creature into orbit on the Sputnik 2. Laika, a mix-breed dog, was placed into the spacecraft by the Soviet Union as a measure to beat the United States to the punch.
The event happened just a short while after the Soviet Union kicked off the Space Age and the Cold War with the U.S. Sputnik 2 was launched just one month after Sputnik 1 successfully went into orbit, although unmanned, on October 4.
Obviously this day and age we wouldn’t even fathom placing a dog on a spacecraft to see if we could successfully get it into orbit. Back in the 1950s, however, there were no second thoughts about doing it. The goal was to get a living thing into orbit, and there was no human volunteer for the mission.
Laika has become a celebrity in her own right for her bravery and what she did for the entire world in the progress of space travel and discovery. Sadly the Sputnik 2 was a suicide mission for the Russian pup. The spacecraft was not designed to come back, only to make it into orbit.
After the mission
Telemetry data showed that Laika survived the launch, but died shortly after reaching orbit. Initially, Soviets claimed that the dog died painlessly after a week in orbit, but that account has been called into question over the past few decades.
“Decades later, several Russian sources revealed that Laika survived in orbit for four days and then died when the cabin overheated,” Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com said in a post. “According to other sources, severe overheating and the death of the dog occurred only five or six hours into the mission.”
On November 10, 1957 Sputnik 2’s batteries died and transmissions back to Earth ceased.
“With all systems dead, the spacecraft continued circling the Earth until April 14, 1958, when it re-entered the atmosphere after 2,570 orbits (2,370 orbits according to other sources) or 162 days in space,” said Zak. “Many people reportedly saw a fiery trail of Sputnik 2 as it flew over New York and reached the Amazon region in just 10 minutes during its re-entry.”
The United States launched its successful Explorer 1 mission on January 31, 1958 in response to Sputnik 2. Just three years later on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union sent into orbit (and brought back to Earth) the first human, Yuri Gagarin.