The first creature to fly through space wasn’t a person. That honor goes to Laika the dog, who was launched into space in 1957, just months after the launch of the first successful artificial satellite.
Laika was a stray dog chosen at random by Soviet space scientists who wanted to try to see if spaceflight was survivable. Much of the spaceflight experience was impossible to replicate on earth, from the sustained gravitational loads of launch to the lack of gravity and air pressure. It was unknown at that time if the radiation levels in outer space would permit even short visits outside the atmosphere; it was not even clear whether basic functions like digestion and breathing would be possible.
Laika was launched in a small capsule on November 4, 1957. She was restrained and not permitted to move more than a few inches in any direction. The capsule was fitted with the basics of life support: an oxygen recirculator, some gelatin for nourishment, and a small fan for climate control. There was also a radio transmitter attached to an electrocardiogram, to verify that Laika was still alive.
The dog survived launch and proved that it was possible to orbit the earth and live to tell the tale. Sadly, however, the story takes a turn for the worse. Soviet scientists had no plans to bring Laika home alive, having done nothing to develop the heat shielding or re-entry procedures required. Laika became the first creature to die in space, possibly within hours of launch. It is believed that due to a mechanical failure Laika died from overheating, although that fact was kept out of the press for years. People were told she was humanely euthanized before her oxygen and food ran out. This was simply not true.
Laika the dog was a hero in the annals of spaceflight, and because of her sacrifice better procedures and technologies were developed. Knowing that animals could survive spaceflight made it possible to launch more complex rockets and go deeper away from the safety of Earth. This made geosynchronous orbit, where communications satellites appear to “hover” over a point on the ground, possible and allowed for the development of many communications technologies.
We salute Laika with a hearty “arf” of thanks for her ultimate sacrifice on the road to the technological world in which we live today.