Canine cosmonauts were remembered in a new book by Russian Oleysa Turkina. Soviet Space Dogs describes the adventures, hardships and celebrity experienced by the world’s first outer space travelers. Turkina, a research fellow at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, brings to life this small bit of history that changed the world.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first man to launch into space. He escaped the earth’s atmosphere, strong gravitational pull and reflected light to fly around the sphere. He was the first human to view the blue marble from a distance, but Gagrin was not the first space pioneer. Before the Soviets risked the life of a comrade, they put dogs into ships and rocketed them into space.
Forget Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, the canine cosmonauts were real-life adventurers and heroes. They paved the way for human travel to the near reaches of space. Turkina writes, “These dogs are the characters in a fairy tale that was created by the USSR….” Laika (Barker), Belka (Squirrel), and Strelka (Little Arrow). Pchyolka (Little Bee), Mushka (Little Fly) and Chernushka (Blackie) all orbited the earth. Other dogs were used to test rockets and make sub-orbital flights. These dogs were instrumental in helping the USSR pull ahead in the space race and were treated like national celebrities and champions.
The dogs were strays plucked from the streets and alleys of Moscow. Dogs made better cosmonauts that other animals such as monkeys because they were trainable but not fidgety flyers. The effects of g-forces from takeoff and zero gravity in orbit were unknown. Using dogs allowed the Soviets to build small rockets and test the physics of space. The dogs were trained at the Institute of Aviation Medicine. Soviet scientists looked for small, feisty female dogs that could handle the demanding preparations and rigorous flights. Not all dogs survived their spaceflights. Those that returned to earth had often paid a physical price and lived out their lives in laboratories cared for by devoted attendants.
Laika was the first dog, the first earth-born creature, to rocket to the stars. On Nov. 3, 1957 she flew around the earth aboard Sputnik 2. Rocket science was in its infancy and the scientists did not know how to bring a ship safely back to earth. In their haste to reach space they sacrificed Laika. The dog suffocated in the heat aboard the ship before it burned up on re-entry. Laika became a national icon and martyr to science. She is still acclaimed as a patriotic icon.
Fortunately for the next pair of space travelers, the Soviets mastered re-entry. Belka and Strelka lived through their August 1960 voyage. When they came home they wagged their tales for television, radio, magazines and newspapers. Soviet citizens could not get enough of their canine heroes. They were hungry for pictures of the dogs in their rockets and space helmets. Strelka had puppies with another canine cosmonaut. One of their litter, Pushinka, was gifted to President John F. Kennedy. Descendants of Strelka still exist throughout the U.S. and Russia.
Pchyolka and Mushka were purposely abandoned to protect Soviet secrets. Their rocket took a wrong turn during re-entry so was intentionally destroyed in order that it would not be discovered. Chernuska made a flight on March 9, 1961 and returned unharmed.
The Soviet space dogs launched the age of space exploration. As an extension of the cold war, the U.S. and USSR engaged in a space race. In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik, the earth’s first artificial satellite. Then the Soviets sent a probe to the moon and, because of their tests with the dogs, they were the first to put a man into space. President Eisenhower created NASA and President Kennedy declared the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Now the United States and Russia cooperate on space exploration aboard the International Space Station.
The United States launched monkeys into space to test their rockets and spaceships but they never gained the popularity of the Soviet dogs. Yuri Gagarin quipped once, “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?” The canine cosmonauts are remembered in a new book as an integral step to the stars.
By: Rebecca Savastio