Meet Laika, the first to orbit Earth! Science

One way trip to space

The initial uproar over sending a dog to space and death were slowly forgotten as Laika was projected as a symbol of success and pride  

Death has a certain mystery to it. There are questions pertaining to death that continue to remain unanswered. And yet, it is a given that every one of us will be dead one day. We saw last week that Wallace Carothers ended his own life even while still at the peak of his career. This week, we will see how Laika’s death immortalised her, forever occupying an important position is our space history.

You know Laika, don’t you? Not the first animal in space, but in fact the first to orbit Earth. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been putting animals atop rockets since 1947 as they tried to edge each other in their space race. Their objective? To understand the effects of weightlessness and thus test the safety and feasibility of sending human beings to space, and bringing them back unharmed.

Picked from the street

Laika was a stray female mutt that was picked from the streets of Moscow. Along with two other dogs (Albina and Mushka), she was trained for space travel by being kept in small cages and eating nutritious gel that was to be food in space.

Initially called Kudryavka, or Little Curly, she was later nicknamed Laika, or Barker. She was chosen ahead of the other dogs for her calm demeanour. And on November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik 2, with Laika aboard.

Merely a month after launching Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 2 was launched. Laika was surrounded by soft padding and life-support equipment, with a special harness that restricted her movements, but allowed her to bark.

Air regeneration systems provided oxygen and Laika’s coat were groomed and combed. Patches of her body were specifically treated so that they could receive electrodes that were used to monitor her vital signs.

The journey was, however, never going to be a round trip. It was designed to be a one way trip to space and death for Laika, as the necessary technology to return a payload safely back to Earth had not yet been developed at that time.

Controversy over death

Sputnik 2 burned up in the atmosphere in April 1958, but Laika had been long dead by then. In fact, there are conflicting reports about the remainder of Laika’s life. While initial reports claimed that Laika survived for four days or even up to a week, it was contradicted decades later.

During the World Space Congress in 2002, Dimitri Malashenkov of the Institute for Biological Problems in Moscow revealed that Laika might have died just a few hours into the start of the mission, owing to overheating and panic. Telemetry from the capsule showed that temperature and humidity increased after the start of the mission. Five to seven hours after the launch, no life signs were received from Laika.

Laika becomes a martyr

Even though Laika was alive for only a few hours, she provided data on the behaviour of a living organism in space environment. The initial uproar over sending a dog to space and death were slowly forgotten as Laika was projected as a symbol of success and pride. A statue of a small mongrel dog stands at Star City outside Moscow, as Laika’s place in history has been carved out forever.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 11:44:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/one-way-trip-to-space/article6560978.ece

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