Sixty-one years ago this November, a small dog, a stray lured off the streets of Moscow, was sent aloft in the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik II.
Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth, blazing the way for one of humankind’s greatest achievements.
You may have seen “First Man,” the new movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Laika, a husky-terrier mongrel, whose fetching name means “barker,” was First Dog.
Dogs evolved through our selective breeding of them, and only very late in a span of perhaps 10,000 years did we begin to select them for all of their common pet variations.
Until then, back into our prehistory, we bred them for their temperaments and abilities – that is, their abilities to work with us, understand us, to be useful. And were they ever. You could also say they bred us.
We co-evolved with them. We were freed to sleep through the night well-guarded, and develop the big brains that eventually led us to ask what was beyond the stars – and to endeavor to see. That they preceded us into space was only natural. They were breaking another trail, like sled dogs carrying vaccine – carrying our curiosity.
Until Laika flew, no one knew what would happen to a living being outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Here is something else you should know. While Americans were training chimpanzees to go into space, and using coercive methods, the Soviets, who treated people cruelly, trained dogs such as Laika with only positive reinforcement.
“At the risk of sentimentality, if the Soviets used love to train their space dogs, then a trained space dog, like Laika, completed her daily work not out of the threat of being punished but out of love,” Kurt Caswell writes in a new book about her.
Before Laika, the Soviets had sent dogs into space. It tried to recover all of them, but some were killed. The U.S. had done the same, with the same results, with its chimps.
Laika was also different because, we know now, there was no way to bring her down from orbit. At most she could have lived seven days.
That she was always going to die in that capsule is still a hard fact.
Was Laika curious as she sat there in her flight suit? Did she look out the window? Could she have known what she was seeing as she sailed deeper into space? Did she know how far she was from home?
Was she lonely?
People have been asking these questions for decades.
“Our civilization, on which rests the advancement of our technologies, from agriculture to computers to space-faring, would not be possible without animals,” Caswell says in “Laika’s Window.”
“But we do not own the animals of the Earth. They are not here for us alone. They are beings in their own right, and this is how we should think of them. ... It is as if the storehouse of human knowledge was given to us by animals, and sometimes at great expense to them.”
Laika died within hours of launch, from overheating and dehydration. This was a problem the Soviets were able to correct before they sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space and brought him back alive.
Yet she did live to make it into low gravity and circle Earth two or three times, slowly spinning in her capsule. She could see out the window.
Sputnik II came down five months after Laika went up. Somewhere over the Caribbean, it became a fireball bright as the moon. It glowed white with tinges of blues and greens out to oranges, like a peacock’s tail.
Some part of Barker became star dust, as are we all.
There is history and then there is knowledge. Those of us who know Laika’s story, and know the sad, inspiring and excruciating details, also know something else that you cannot find even with the best telescope.
Laika is still up there.