65 years ago, the USSR sent the dog Laïka into space

I asked her to forgive us and I cried stroking her one last time“, recalls Adilia Kotovskaya, a Russian biologist. The next day, the dog Laïka flew away for a one-way trip and became the first living being sent into space.

65 years ago, on November 3, 1957, barely a month after the first Soviet Sputnik was put into orbit, the second artificial satellite in history took off into space with the animal, which had been picked up in the streets from Moscow. He will only survive a few hours.

For the number one Soviet at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, the objective was to show the superiority of the USSR over the United States just before the commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, on November 7.

His nine orbits of the Earth made Laïka the first cosmonaut on the planet, sacrificed in the name of the success of future space missions“, underlines Adilia Kotovskaïa, now 90 years old, always proud to have contributed to training animals for space missions.

She remembers that dogs had previously been sent to suborbital altitudes for durations of a few minutes”to verify that it was possible to survive in weightlessness“.”We now had to send one into space“, she told AFP in Moscow.

To get used to space flight in a pressurized capsule 80 centimeters long, the dogs were placed in smaller and smaller cages, recalls the scientist. They passed through a centrifuge simulating the acceleration undergone at the takeoff of a rocket, were subjected to noises imitating the interior of a ship and were fed with “space meals” in the form of jelly.

The pioneer animals of space

Laïka, a mongrel dog about three years old and weighing 6 kilograms, had been picked up in the streets of Moscow, like all the other “candidates”.

⋙ Animals, pioneers of space conquest

We selected female dogs, because they do not need to lift their paws to urinate and therefore need less space than males, and mongrels because they are more resourceful and undemanding.“, explains the specialist, at the head of a laboratory at the Institute of medico-biological problems in Moscow.

Heat and dehydration

The candidates had to be photogenic and their first name was chosen to mark the spirits. Laïka – from the Russian word “bark” – had been selected from five or six competitors for her resourcefulness, her particularly docile character and her slightly questioning gaze. “Of course we knew that she had to perish in this flight, for lack of means of recovering her, non-existent at the time“, continues the old lady.

The day before his mission, “I went to see her, I asked her to forgive us and I even cried while caressing her one last time“, she recalls. The launch of Sputnik with Laika, November 3, 1957 at 5:30 a.m. (Moscow time), in Kazakhstan, from the future Baikonur cosmodrome, “didn’t bode anything bad“, recalls Adilia Kotovskaïa.

Admittedly, during the ascent of the rocket, Laïka’s heart rate increased considerably“. After three hours the dog recovered her normal rhythm. But suddenly, after the ninth rotation around the Earth, the temperature inside Laïka’s capsule began to rise and exceeded 40°C. , for lack of sufficient protection against solar radiation.

Result: Laïka, who should have remained alive between eight and ten days, died after a few hours due to the heat and dehydration. Soviet radio continued despite everything to publish daily reports on “Laïka’s good health“, who became a planetary heroine.

According to the official version, long supported by Moscow, Laïka died thanks to a poison that she received with her food to avoid a painful death when the craft returned to the atmosphere.

Sputnik itself disintegrated in the atmosphere on April 14, 1958, over the West Indies, with its passenger dead for five months. On August 19, 1960, a space flight brought back alive two dogs sent into space, Belka and Strelka, paving the way for the first manned flight of the Soviet Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.

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