Muttnik, the Little Traveling Barker
On Saturday, October 5, 1957, word that the Soviets had put a 184-pound satellite, Sputnik, into orbit the night before spread throughout the United States. Fear and paranoia spread throughout the country while the Soviet Union celebrated, specifically the scientists who had built and launched the small satellite. Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev allowed his men to take a brief vacation at the seaside resort of Sochi, the first in many years, but he didn’t rest himself. Instead, he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to plan the next Soviet coup in space.
Khrushchev was impressed by Sputnik, which translates loosely to “little traveler.” Not only was the satellite a success, it had beaten the Vanguard satellite on which Americans were pinning their space hopes into orbit. Khrushchev casually asked Korolev what he could do to maintain this momentum, hinting in so many words that he’d like another launch to mark the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7. Though it was just a month away, Korolev assured the leader he could launch another satellite for the occasion. But he upped the ante, suggesting they make this one a little more impressive by launching a dog into orbit. Khrushchev was pleased. The official launch order cam on October 12, though Korolev called his men back to work on the 10th; there was no doubt the launch would be approved.
It was a tall order. Korolev’s men had to work feverishly to design, build, and launch a satellite impressive enough to make a statement but simple enough to work without the benefit of extensive testing. Luckily, launching a dog wasn’t entirely new to Soviet scientists in 1957. Like their American counterparts, the Soviets had launched dogs and other animals on short suborbital flights to gather biomedical data. So the question was what type of satellite to fit with a life support system.
Options for this new satellite were slim. Korolev figured they could either modify one of the larger satellites that was under development at the time or build something simpler from scratch. Neither was too appealing, so he opted for a third route: heavily modify a PS-1 type satellite, the same satellite family as Sputnik.
The bulk of the satellite turned out to be a cylindrical module inside which the dog would sit outfitted in a pressure suit and within reach of a specially designed feeding trough. On top of this life support module would be a near copy of Sputnik, a small spherical module with the equipment needed to transmit spacecraft telemetry and biological readings to the ground. A slow scan television system was added inside the module send images of the dog in space to the ground in real time. The R-7 launch vehicle’s core was designed to stay mated to the spacecraft into orbit so its trajectory system could orient the spacecraft and aid in tracking.
Unfortunately for the dog, the mission was a one-way trip by design. The technology for a safe return and landing on Earth didn’t exist and there wasn’t enough time to devise a system before the November 7 deadline. So in lieu of a landing system there was a lethal injection on board among all the life support systems. Scientists figured they could at least spare the dog a slow death by oxygen deprivation by putting it to sleep peacefully.
With the spacecraft construction underway and a fair idea of how to run the mission, the only thing left was to find the right dog.
There were ten canine candidates. All had been trained at the Air Force’s Institute of Aviation Medicine and some even had previous suborbital launch experience. The ten were paired down to three: Albina, Laika, and Mukha. Aeromedical specialist Vasiliy Parin chose Laika, which means barker, because of her even temperament.
That she was selected was seen by the humans in charge an honour; becoming the first living being in space was nothing short of historic. But there were some who felt bad about her inevitable and impending death. One of the Air Force doctors, Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika home to meet and play with his children. He thought she seemed to enjoy herself. It was all he could think of to do as something nice for the dog that was unknowingly giving her life to the Soviet space program.
As the end of October neared, six physicians prepared Laika and her backup Albina for the flight. Both went through additional training. Intensive medical preparations saw wires placed under the dogs’ skin over their ribs to monitor breathing. Portions of their carotid arteries diverted to skin wired to record blood pressure and pulse rate.
Under heavy supervision, Laika was put into her spacecraft on October 31. By nightfall, it was mated to the R-7 booster. For two days she waited on the launch pad while scientists monitored her vitals around the clock. They paid special attention to the heating system. The weather at Baikonur is cold that time of year and no one wanted Laika to freeze to death before launch.
Finally, just after 5:30 local time on the morning of November 3, Laika left the launch pad at TyuraTam on a column of fire. Designated Sputnik II, the launch was flawless. The total payload delivered into orbit weighed a staggering 14,560 pounds though just 1,120 pounds was the actual spacecraft. For four days doctors monitored Laika’s vitals and kept an eye on the steadily rising temperature in biological compartment. Inefficiencies and malfunctions in the spacecraft’s thermal control system exposed Laika to an increasingly warm ride until she finally succumbed to heat exhaustion on November 7.
The problems aboard Sputnik II and the loss of Laika paled in comparison to the mission’s successes. As Khrushchev looked over celebrations in Red Square on 40th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution, he was delighted that the Soviets had put two satellites into orbit within a month as well as the world’s first living traveler. The Americans, meanwhile, were still trying to catch up.
But Sputnik II represented so much more than just a coup for Khrushchev’s scientists. This satellite, coming so close on the heels of history’s first and weighing more than six times as much, was a coup for the Soviet system. It represented a new height of technology from people under the Marxist-Leninist system. In the earliest stages of the Cold War, which was at its core a war between ideologies, a little dog scored a big hit for the Soviet way of life.