What happened to the first dog that was left in space? by Stephen Tempest
Answer by Stephen Tempest:
Both the Americans and the Soviets sent animals into space which died there, in the early years of the space race.
The first living creatures in space were fruit flies, sent up by the Americans as an experiment to test the effect of radiation on DNA in 1947. However, the first mammals sent into space — and the first to die — were monkeys.
Albert, a rhesus monkey, was part of an experiment by the United States Army using captured German V2 rockets. These were taken to White Sands in New Mexico to be reassembled and tested. Albert was anaesthetised and strapped into the nosecone of the missile in place of its warhead, fitted with sensors to monitor his heartbeat, respiration, temperature, etc. The V2 rocket reached a height of 63 km above the ground: but Albert unfortunately, suffocated before ever getting that high.
The Americans tried again a year later on 14 June 1949. Another V2 rocket and another monkey called Albert (or “Albert II” to distinguish him from his unfortunate predecessor). This Albert reached 134 km above the ground, making him the first mammal in space (it was later decided officially that 100 km above the Earth’s surface is the lower boundary of ‘space’). Unfortunately, the rocket’s parachute failed and he was killed when the capsule crashed back down again.
Albert II, the first mammal in space
In September 1949 the Americans sent another monkey (unimaginatively called Albert III) up in another V2. He was killed when the rocket exploded at an altitude of 11 km. Continuing the tradition, another monkey called Albert IV was killed in December 1949 when his parachute failed to open. And in April 1951 a fifth monkey — who may have been called Albert V, the records are contradictory — was killed as well by another parachute failure.
By this time the Soviet Union was also entering the space race. They developed the R-1 rocket, a copy of the same V2 the Americans had been using. They, however, chose to use dogs rather than monkeys as their test passengers.
On 22 July 1951 the USSR sent two dogs named Dezik and Tsygan into space, reaching 110 km above the Earth’s surface. Both returned safely — the first mammals ever to do so.
Dezik and Tsygan, the first mammals to go into space and return safely
Seven days later, Dezik was sent on a second trip into space with another dog named Lisa. Sadly, both died when the rocket’s parachute failed to open properly as it came back down. Tsygan, meanwhile, was adopted as a pet by one of the physicists working on the project and lived the rest of her life in comfort.
Over the following few years the Soviets sent about a dozen more dogs into space, some of them more than once. About four of them were killed, the others survived. (Soviet secrecy means that exact details are not always available).
Meanwhile on 20 September 1951 the US sent a monkey named Yorick, accompanied by 11 mice, to 72 km above the Earth. He barely survived the landing, the first American space monkey to do so; but died two hours later of heat exhaustion. Several more US missions in the 1950s also failed.
All of these spaceflights were sub-orbital. That is, the rocket went up past the Earth’s atmosphere into space, but then immediately arced back down again to a landing. (In other words, following the path a ballistic nuclear missile would follow. This was not a coincidence since early space rockets were simply converted ICBMs.) The next step was to orbit the Earth; in other words, to stay up in space going around the planet instead of straight back down again.
The first successful orbit of Earth was performed by the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957. Its launch horrified the Americans, who had not believed until then that the Soviets were ahead of them in space technology. Soviet Premier Khrushchev ordered his scientists to launch a second Sputnik satellite within just four weeks, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; but this one should have a living passenger.
It was Sputnik 2, therefore, that took off on 3 November 1957 with a dog called Laika on board. This mission was unique because the rocket’s designers knew in advance that there would be no way for Laika to return alive. In every other mission, both American and Soviet, the designers had at least made a token effort to bring the animal passengers back safely to Earth, even though they would have known by experience that the odds were strongly against their surviving.
However, those earlier missions had all just lobbed the spacecraft in a ballistic arc, up and down again. Putting a craft into orbit meant that it wouldn’t come down by itself (at least not for several months or years until its orbit decayed) — that was the whole point of an orbital mission. However, in the four scant weeks they were given, the Soviet scientists were unable to work out a method of remotely causing an orbiting spaceship to return to Earth. They would have to leave the craft, and its passenger, up there.
We now know that many of the scientists were unhappy about being ordered to inflict such a fate onto a dog. However, in the tense atmosphere of the Cold War and Soviet-American rivalry, such regrets were not allowed to be made public. Laika was hailed as a brave pioneer sacrificing her life for the advancement of science.
The plan was that after ten days in orbit, Laika would be euthanised by being fed drugged food. However, an equipment failure in the capsule caused it to overheat, and she probably died of heat exhaustion only a few hours after launch. This was hushed up for many years by the Soviet authorities.
Laika in her capsule
Over a year later, meanwhile, the Americans finally managed to send a living creature into space which lived to tell the tale afterwards. This was a two-year-old squirrel monkey named Miss Baker, sent to 101 km above the Earth — but not into orbit — in a Jupiter rocket on 28 May 1959. She would go on to live to be 27 years old.
In May 1960 the Soviets tested the prototype of the rocket that would become their Vostok manned spacecraft. The first flight contained no living creatures, only a test dummy, and was a failure — it reached orbit, but failed to return as planned. The second test in July 1960 was an even worse failure, because the rocket exploded 30 seconds after launch. There were two dogs aboard this flight, named Bars and Lisichka, and both were killed.
In August 1960, the third test of Vostok (codenamed ‘Sputnik 5’ by the Americans when they observed its lift-off) was finally successful. The spacecraft contained two dogs named Belka and Strelka, as well as a rabbit and several rats and mice. They spent a day in space, orbiting the Earth three times, and returned safely. Strelka later had puppies, one of which was given as a gift to the daughter of John F Kennedy in 1961.
Belka and Strelka, the first living creatures to orbit the Earth and return safely.
Eight months later on 12 April 1961 Colonel Yuri Gagarin of the VVS (Soviet Air Force) became the first human in space. He also returned safely.