Monday, February 06, 2012

Canine Cosmonauts

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to reach outer space and orbit the Earth. But Gagarin's flight may not have been possible without the help of many brave, furry astronauts that went into space before him. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union launched dozens of dogs into space to test flight conditions and space environments. Some of the dogs went on to become national heroes, but the program also had its share of tragedies.

A stamp from the United Arab Emirates commemorating Laika—the first dog to orbit the Earth. Image Courtesy NIH.

Between 1951 and 1952, Soviet scientists sent nine dogs into space with mixed results. Although the first suborbital flight of two dogs, Dezik and Tsygan, was successful, several dogs were lost in subsequent missions.

Soviet scientists thought that dogs were more suitable test subjects than monkeys because they wouldn't squirm and fidget as much during flight. In particular, scientists sought stray dogs that were thought to be better conditioned to survive tough environments.

But the dogs were sometimes too crafty for the scientists. The day before one launch in 1951, one of the dogs escaped, and the scientists had to quickly find a replacement. When they found a new dog for the mission, they named her ZIB, the Russian acronym meaning "Substitute for Missing Dog Bobik."

Not all of the dogs' names, however, were devoid of creativity. These early canine cosmonauts were given names such as:

1. Modnista, meaning "Fashionable."
2. Dymka, or "Smoky."
3. And Kozyavka, or "Gnat."

Perhaps the most famous space dog was Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth. Just one month after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, Laika circled the Earth aboard Sputnik 2 in late 1957. Unfortunately, Laika didn't survive the mission, but she became an international sensation, earning the name "Muttnik" in the U.S.

At first, scientists thought that Laika had survived for days aboard the satellite. In 2002, however, a former Soviet scientist told a different story.

Laika actually died from stress and overheating within five to seven hours of liftoff. Space historians long speculated about the nature of Laika's death, and many others have raised ethical questions about the use of animals to test spacecraft. Even the former Soviet scientist expressed regret over the program, noting that the limited information gathered from Laika's mission was not worth her sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the Soviets sent several more dogs into space in the 1960s. Since the program ended, Laika and her comrades' contributions to spaceflight have been memorialized in a number of ways:

(Left): A painting of Belka and Strelka, two space dogs that returned to Earth safely. Image Credit: V. Vizu

(Left): A stamp featuring space dogs Veterok and Ugolyok. Together, these two dogs spent 22 days in orbit, the standing record for canine spaceflight duration.

Middle image of Laika courtesy NASA.

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