Laika (Russian: Лайка, meaning “Barker”; c. 1954 – November 3, 1957) was a Soviet space dog that became the first animal to orbit the Earth – as well as the first animal to die in orbit.
Laika, a stray dog, originally named Kudryavka (Russian: Кудрявка Little Curly), underwent training with two other dogs, and was eventually chosen as the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3, 1957.
Soviet scientists chose to use Moscow strays since they assumed that such animals had already learned to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger. This specimen was an eleven-poundmongrel female, approximately three years old. Another account reported that she weighed about 6 kg (13 lb). Soviet personnel gave her several names and nicknames, among them Kudryavka (Russian for Little Curly), Zhuchka (Little Bug) and Limonchik (Little Lemon). Laika, the Russian name for several breeds of dogs similar to the husky, was the name popularized around the world. The American press dubbed her Muttnik (mutt + suffix -nik) as a pun on Sputnik, or referred to her as Curly. Her true pedigree is unknown, although it is generally accepted that she was part husky or other Nordic breed, and possibly part terrier. A Russian magazine described her temperament as phlegmatic, saying that she did not quarrel with other dogs.
Laika probably died within hours after launch from stress and overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death was not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, or as the Soviet government initially claimed, she was euthanized prior to oxygen depletion. The experiment aimed to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness, paving the way for human spaceflight and providing scientists with some of the first data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments.
It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed regret for allowing her to die:
Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.