Essay / 18 February 2019

A Spacedog’s Life: Notes on Some Unknown Astronauts

What are animals doing in space? What does space do to animals? About canine and human one-way travels.

More than half a century after German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spontaneously expressed his empathy for the tortured creature by embracing a beaten horse near Turin, and approximately four decades after Rosa Luxemburg made her intimate friendship with the songbirds in front of the barred window of Wroclaw’s women’s prison, another animal became a prominent object of human projection. Within the speech of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who returned to Earth after orbiting it on 12 April 1962, the first pilot of space history was gracefully mentioned. It was a small dog that Gagarin acknowledged with his contributions to turning his mission into such a success. The dog who pioneered space flight was named Laika. She was born on the streets of Moscow and died a gruesome death in orbit on 3 November 1957.

The first creature under weightless conditions was not human, but of canine kind. Before astronauts left this planet, animals had to provide them with all the information so necessarily needed. Space fish had to test the behaviour of water, which they were unable to re-enter, because gravity did not pull them down again, and space cats never reached their food pellets, because they did not fall back to the floor. The majority of animal astronauts did not arrive at orbit and only a few came back alive. Some died because of an overheated capsule or a failed rocket start, others did not survive the repulsive forces pushing them forward. Not only Laika was sacrificed for the questionable goal of so-called human progress. Her comrades Enos, Ham, Able, Baker, Sam, Bonnie, Martine, Pierette, Lapik, Multik and Albert flew whole missions for the development of telemetry systems, to study physiological changes and to rank all the risk factors that humans might face during space flight. Some of their names might still be remembered, others never had a history.

So far, the genre of biography was not invented to give animals their deserved place. Coming up to mark the status of an outstanding personality within bourgeois society, this literary genre soon became an instrument for the legitimisation of power relations. If there had ever been an extraordinary merit which could have justified the eccentric position of an individual out of the ordinary, animals who flew to space could have taken it. They could have had biographies with all the stories that make a personality out of a person; but animals – not only the ones who were space pioneers – are barely treated as subjects in society. Even if one could register their protest against their fate, they were not seen as actors willing to move beyond their subaltern status. But what animals attack with teeth, claws and paws is never accidental. It represents their resistance towards all those things they cannot express within the vocabulary of the dominant human language. 


It might be hard to make someone part of space history who was not intended to make it. Beyond all the scientific data her body was used to collect, other signs of Laika’s existence are not easy to uncover. What is left are tables with results of blood pressure measurements, with notes on sensors and silver electrodes implanted beneath the skin. Beside this huge amount of quantifying data, there are also a few photos reclaiming Laika’s presence. Most of them show the dog within a framework of cages, machines and monitoring systems, trapped within a rigid apparatus without any chance to escape. Nevertheless, one of those photos – it is the image of Laika prior to her history-making flight – captured a moment of silent resistance: Strapped into a harness, which makes the ability to move nearly non-existent, one can see that the dog still tries to paw against her enclosure.

Dogs are not always a big exception. During her career, Laika went through all the institutions society forces its members to become part of it. Far from the anonymity of her pack, Laika crossed the threshold of the Moscow Institute of Aviation Medicine in 1956 for the first time. Selected as a proper candidate for further space adventures, she fulfilled the whole catalogue of significant criteria, taking race, class, age and gender into account. Because dogs that were too old or too young would have shown different reactions, the ideal age of the chosen ones was something in between eighteen months and six years. Besides that, only dogs that were small enough to fit into the limited payload space were recruited; concerning their gender, they had to be female – otherwise it would have been much more complicated to contain their urinal excrements under free-floating conditions. Since the animals should be filmed during their flights, a light-coloured fur was an important factor. This time, Laika’s proletarian heritage was seen as an advantage: As a stray dog on the streets of Moscow, she was inured to hunger and cold. The training would harm her less than any other canine fellows.

Dog tests.

Preparing Laika to become ‘man’s best friend’ was meant to be a result of rigid training. Her comrades were called Bobik, Chizhik, Dezik, Lisa, Mishka, Neputevvy, Ryzhik, Smelaya, Albina, Kozyavka, Malyshka and Tsygan, and they were daily trained as well. A year was left to prepare them to overcome the physiological difficulties of orbital flights. First of all, they were put into a uniform that should protect them from the conditions under high altitude. Dressed in a retaining suit, consisting of a knit vet and short pants with chains, their muscle reactions were accurately measured. Held by a corset, the dogs were then forced to stand inside a small box for hours. After completing this stage of training, they were submitted to staying in a capsule for several days. An apparatus, which should simulate the vibrations a space dog has to deal with during a rocket launch, exposed them to special conditions. Not all of the dogs could compensate the noise and the shuddering of the vibration table; some of them seemed to know what this machine should prepare them for, but the majority still reacted silently and kept calm. Only Bobik, a young dog chosen for a ballistic flight, opposed his taming. One day before his take-off, he successfully escaped his fate. The void left by his absence was quickly closed: ‘ZIB’ – a Russian acronym alluding to the initial letters of ‘substitute for missing dog Bobik’ – was chosen to replace him. It was a simple question of weight and height: Not the rocket adjusted to the dog, but the dog to the rocket. 



Had Laika a biography, she also would have a genealogy. Celebrities rarely come alone: About three years after Laika’s crushing ride, two dogs would step into her footsteps. Belka and Strelka, who were part of the same puppy crate, would become the protagonists of a positivist porn shot in Outer Space. Their images were beamed back to earth by an onboard TV camera, installed in the interior of Korabl-Sputnik 2. After take-off, the dogs were barking and trying to loosen their restraints; by passing the fourth orbit, Belka started to vomit excessively – a reaction all too human. Watched from a paparazzi-like perspective, the space dog observers did not hesitate to declare the whole mission a huge success.Public images would follow. Soviet scientist Oleg Gazenko proudly presented the dogs at a press conference after their historic flight. Parachuted back to earth by a catapult, ejecting their cabin near the city of Orsk, Belka and Strelka were the first survivors in a long history of orbital dog expeditions. After twenty-five hours in space, they were recovered by a team of scientists who released them from their cabin. 

Not every dog in Laika’s symbolic ancestry became an early media star. Another couple had much more difficulty in returning back to Earth than Belka and Strelka. Their renaming went fairly quickly: Zhulka and Shutka were accorded more glamorous names a few minutes before take-off; they left Earth as Zhemchuzhnaya (Pearl) and Kometa (Comet). The plan of suborbital rebirth ended in a terrible ordeal. Because of an errant trajectory triggering their device, the dogs nearly fell victim to its built-in self-destructive mechanism. The capsule containing them had not been ejected from the recoverable spacecraft but landed somewhere in the Siberian snow. Miraculously, the dogs would be recovered alive after spending three nights inside their capsule. This incident did not hinder Soviet State authorities from stressing their supremacy within the fragile balance of the early Cold War. 

In contrast to all those stories made to make history, Laika’s was not the one to succeed. From the very beginning, it seemed to be clear that her mission would end up lethal. At this time, suborbital dog flights and the program to perfect R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, were paralleled. To extend the bright light of world publicity Soviet space science had already gained, another creature would be sacrificed. As soon as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found out that it was possible to launch one of the Sputnik satellites, he decided to arrange its start. On occasion of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Laika would reach orbit. This time, history’s repetition ended tragically. Since no technologies existed for a safe return, it had to be a one-way trip.  


What would Laika have said, if she would have had a voice? Did she know that it was her last supper, when mission scientist Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home one day before her launch? Did she feel that the reason for choosing her was the same Yuri Gagarin should be selected for? Was her calmness the result of an exhaustion after completing military service? Or was it a natural reaction of someone submitting to their fate? Beyond projections, those questions must be left open. For sure, the answers cannot be found inside a satellite’s interior.

On 14 April 1958, shortly after midnight, a group of witnesses across the American East Coast reported the discovery of an UFO; some minutes later, Caribbean fisherman were convinced that they’d seen the same object in the sky. What those people from different parts of the world were watching at the same time was a burning space wreck coming down to Earth. It was the vehicle carrying Laika’s corpse. After orbiting over a year, one of the ‘crown jewels of Soviet space technology’ had unexpectedly returned. The animal, who refined it at the start, turned to ashes. It can be assumed that Laika died within the first hours of her mission. The heat-dissipating screen and the ventilating fan inside her capsule were not up to the task of controlling a temperature climbing far too high.  

Five days after Laika’s death, Radio Moscow was still convinced that it could register vital signs from Outer Space. Transmissions like these should not fail their receivers. Today, different plans are made to end dogs’ lives. The subjects to be chosen neither bite nor bark. Planning to settle on Mars in 2031, a group of international volunteers will fly out of free will. The tickets for a mission called Mars One are one-way at lower costs. This time it is the destructive force of capital that transforms human beings into canine kind. Space dogs had a history, dead men will tell no tales. 


Barbara Eder

is an author and journalist, currently living in Vienna. She studied social sciences, economics and philosophy in Vienna, Frankfurt and Berlin and spent several years in Hungary and Armenia, writing texts for newspapers, books and anthologies,