The Forgotten Heroes of Space Travel

Recent advances in rocketry paired with the privatization of space travel have reinvigorated public interest in the cosmos. With companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX demonstrating the capability to create and launch reusable rockets that can carry supplies into orbit and land safely back on earth, the possibility of establishing an off-world colony appears to be closer than ever before. As the conversation surrounding the colonization of Mars begins to materialize, and mankind once again looks up towards the sky and begins to conjure images of what our future in space may look like, we should also remember where it all began. We must look back to the infancy of space travel and remember the original pioneers whose sacrifices made it possible for Man to reach the moon. While they were once household names and global icons such as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Yuri Gagarin, these cosmonauts are now forgotten phantoms, a solemn reminder of a darker chapter in mankind’s conquest of the cosmos. These travelers were some of the first living beings to journey into space. Some paid the ultimate price for the advancement of aeronautics, and for this they should be remembered. I speak, of course, of the Soviet space dogs.

During the Space Race that followed World War II, the USSR and the United States battled for technological supremacy, as each space program had their sights set on being the first to put a human into space. However, before attempting to launch a human being inside a rocket, scientists wanted to study the effects that such a journey might have on a living organism. Both space programs used a variety of animal subjects in place of humans during test flights, so that observations could be made on the effects that increased gravity, high velocity, and eventual weightlessness might have on the creatures. The United States opted to use monkeys as their early astronauts, while the USSR opted for canines. This decision was made after Soviet scientists spoke with circus trainers and learned that dogs were easier to train and less stressed by loud noises. Thus, the space dog program was born.

The life of a dog in the space program was not a pleasant one. Scientists and military personnel would drive around with meat looking for stray dogs which were of the right size to fit into the capsule. The dogs were then taken back to the test facility for further examination and selection. After they were chosen for the program, the dogs were subjected to many unpleasant tests and exercises in order to prepare them mentally and physically for their mission ahead. The idea was to make them somewhat accustomed to the conditions of the rocket flight (i.e., loud noise, violent rumbling, increased gravity, etc.) so scientists could get a more accurate reading on their cardiovascular systems during the actual flights. The scientists hoped that a life on the streets might have prepared these strays for the conditions of their flights. While the animals were put through inhumane testing, their well-being was still in the minds of scientists, and they would just as soon win over the hearts of those in the lab, and eventually the world.

The first two canine cosmonauts were Gypsy & Dezik. Their historic journey would see them launched 110 kilometers above the earth, and subject them to the stressful conditions for which they had been preparing. Upon landing back on earth, the medical crew anxiously opened the hatch, and to their relief both dogs were alive and calm. This was especially relieving to chief medical officer, Alexander Seryapin, who had grown fond of Gypsy. The dogs were extracted from the capsule and given sausages and water as the crews celebrated a successful first flight.
On the next flight, scientists wanted to use one of the dogs from the previous flight, in order to examine whether or not stress levels would be reduced. Dezik was the dog chosen for the flight. During this flight, the capsule’s parachute would unfortunately fail, and both passengers would perish. Gypsy was immediately retired in order to keep her as a national symbol and preserve the image of the space program. And so, began a series of unfortunate fates that would claim more victims in the years to come.

Perhaps the most well-known of all the space dogs was Laika. Like all the other dogs in the space program, Laika began as a nameless stray that was found on the streets; however, she would be adored by many around the world for her tragic story. Laika was sent into orbit aboard the Soviet satellite, Sputnik 2. The mission was intended to be a one-way journey, and indeed it was so. A few hours into her flight, Laika would pass away due to overheating inside the capsule, and the satellite would later burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere. Laika’s passing was mourned by many around the world. She had become a household name and captivated the hearts and minds of those following her journey. She would become a national icon and have monuments erected in her honor, an effigy to the sacrifices made for technological advancement.

Though there were many growing pains, the Soviet space program would soon find success with an orbital flight. Belka and Strelka were the pair selected for another attempt at an orbital flight. The pair was launched into space and would complete 18 orbits, spending almost 24 hours in space, before being safely returned to the surface. This successful flight was a major milestone in space travel, and one that really opened the door for the first human cosmonaut. Belka and Strelka became international celebrities and were featured on news reels and television shows. The dogs were so prized that Nikita Khrushchev would later gift one of Strelka’s puppies, Pushinka, to President Kennedy’s family.

As space flights became more successful, they demonstrated to the Soviet leadership that the time for a human to be launched into space had finally arrived. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, aboard the Vostok 1, would become the first human being to travel into space. With the continued success of manned flights, the use of canines would eventually come to an end in 1966. Forty-eight dogs took part in space flights in the 10 years before the first man would be sent up, and of those forty-eight, twenty would sadly perish.

Though they didn’t choose to, the Soviet space dogs have become historic icons; and they played an integral part in man’s quest to space. Looking back, we can see that people around the world, regardless of national allegiance, once celebrated the achievements of the Soviet space dogs, as well as mourned their losses. The promise of space brings nations together in collaboration for the advancement of the human species. As we move forward into a new era of space travel, an era that will potentially see humans establish off-world colonies on Mars, we will soon have a new list of iconic names, as the first settlers step foot onto the red planet. It is in those moments—the moments that make us pause and reflect on how far we’ve advanced as a species—that we can look back and pay homage to the first pioneers of space travel: The Soviet space dogs.

Full article in PLASMA 4 (print edition)

credit Nora Heinisch



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