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Canine pioneer: Soviet mutt was first earthling in space

by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Oct 30, 2007
Fifty years ago Saturday, a perky-eared mutt named Laika, scooped up from the streets of Moscow, became the first earthling to breach our planet's atmosphere and enter space.

It was a short and painful voyage for the docile little stray, which died within hours after launch, but a crowning coup for the Soviet Union.

Only a month earlier, Moscow had humiliated the United States by lobbing Sputnik, the world's first satellite, into orbit.

Sputnik 2 added another thick layer of insult, expanding Moscow's lead in the emerging space race just as the USSR was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.

Besides its propaganda value, Laika's brief trip inside the pressurized 508-kilo (1,120 pound) capsule also proved that a mammal could withstand the rigors of liftoff and helped paved the way for future manned missions, both Russian and American.

The luckless canine avatar of Soviet power completed her first and last space voyage under a pseudonym.

Baptised "Kudryavka", or "Curly", by the scientists who trained her, the mongrel was to gain world fame as "Laika" -- "the barker" -- the name given to Siberian hunting dogs who ferret out game birds by barking. Laika looked more like a fox terrier, but apparently had a bit of Siberian hunter running in her veins.

On Sunday, November 3, 1957, at 10:28 pm, Laika lifted off on her one-way trip, facing a camera and dressed in a spacesuit laced with sensors to monitor her heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing.

The official version of her fate, which went unchallenged for 45 years, goes like this: Laika completed her week-long mission 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) above Earth and died peacefully, as planned, after a last supper laced with a strong poison.

But rumours circulated, one suggesting that the four-legged space pioneer had simply run out of oxygen.

The truth finally emerged during a conference in the United States in 2002.

Dimitry Malachenkov, a scientist at the Biomedical Institute of Moscow who worked on the Sputnik 2 mission, revealed that Laika had died from shock and heat exhaustion only hours after liftoff.

Terrified by the roar and the vibration of the engines, the dog lurched desperately to free itself at the rocket took altitude, its heart racing at three times normal speed.

Laika calmed somewhat as the capsule settled into orbit, but the respite was short-lived. A heat shield had been partially ripped off during the separation with the booster, and within a few hours the temperature inside the capsule had risen to 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit), rather than 15 C (59 F).

Five hours after takeoff, Laika showed no signs of life.

Her high-tech coffin orbited until August 14, 1958, when it burned up upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

Despite the operation's problems, Soviet scientists learnt enough from it to send more dogs into space and bring them back safely.

And less than four years later, the door to exploration of the cosmos opened for humans when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach outer space on April 12, 1961.

Laika, at a stroke, became the most famous dog that ever lived, although for animal welfare activists she was simply the best-known in a long list of animal martyrs who were sacrificed for space.

Today, at least half a dozen songs are devoted to her lonely, one-way trip.

Four decades after the flight, Russians unveiled a memorial to Laika at the Institute for Aviation and Space Medicine, at Star City, just outside Moscow, where she and two other dogs were trained.

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