Category Archives: Chimpanzees

Laika the Space Dog

A second-generation friend of mine on Facebook posts, nearly every day, a “This day in history” post, which I always look forward to.  (By second-generation, I mean, a friend, in this case a cousin, of someone I actually know.  In a few rare cases, I’m friends with the friends of people I don’t know, Facebook having re-defined the definition of “friend”.  Well, that’s why they call it social networking.)

So, yesterday, July 20th, in the year 1960, the U.S. recovered the first living beings to have orbited the earth.  Two dogs.

But first there was Laika.  Laika was the first living creature to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, Sputnik 2.  Other dogs had been sent into space, but suborbitally. Laika was launched into space on November 3, 1957.  No matter what happened, Laika was never coming back.  No matter how long the craft orbited, there was only enough oxygen for 6 days.  The scientists had taught Laika to eat food pellets and the plan was to feed her a poisoned food pellet before the oxygen ran out.  If the craft had fallen out of orbit before the oxygen ran out, she would have died anyway because the craft was not designed to survive re-entry.  (It eventually disintegrated on April 14, 1958 upon re-entry.)

The official explanation was that the plan had been activated.  Laika was euthanized on Day 6 before the oxygen ran out.  You gotta love the official explanations of the Soviet Union.  In fact, what really happened is that there was a malfunction of the cooling system and Laika died from the heat 6 or 7 hours into the orbit.  I guess they didn’t know about this malfunction in time to euthanize her before she fried.  The true story wasn’t revealed until 2002.

Here are a few quotes from the Wikipedia article about her (which for a Wikipedia article, seems strangely accurate–they actually cite sources).

“Before the launch, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children.  In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote ‘I wanted to do something nice for her.  She had so little time left to live'”.

“One of the technicians preparing the capsule before final liftoff states that ‘after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight'”.

Finally, “It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed regret for allowing her to die.  ‘Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us.  We treat them like babies who cannot speak.  We shouldn’t have done it.  We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog'”.

At the time of Laika’s death, I was only 7 years old, and totally unaware of it. But her death sparked a huge outcry (there was resistance to it before that, but Laika’s death created more awareness).  I remember in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s, there were bitter debates about the use of animals to test new medicines and cosmetics.  Cosmetics?  As late as 1993, I had an argument with my cousin, an officer in the U.S. Navy, about the use of dolphins to seek out mines in the ocean.  He said, is it better to lose one dolphin, or a thousand human beings?

That was a good question. It still is a good question.  Today, 20 years later, the Navy is phasing out its use of dolphins, and the U.S. is phasing out its use of chimpanzees for research.  Technology has surpassed the usefulness of these animals.  But back when we didn’t have such sophisticated technology, was it okay then?  It seems to me that Laika’s trainers and handlers found it an agonizing decision.