Dogs in Space: A celebration of history's canine cosmonauts

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Sep 14, 2016

One of the triumphs of the human experience is our achievements in discovering the technology that would take us off our humble little blue marble and into the infinite vastness of space -- or at least dip our toes in it. But before we sent ourselves up there, we had to see if it was even possible to survive such a trip. Since PETA wasn't founded until 1980, we sent animals up to test the waters. As their very first organic, oxygen-requiring space-traveling life form, Russia nominated a dog.

On its face, this is no way to treat "man's best friend," but another way to look at it is the argument that dogs were perfectly suited for spaceflight: they're used to staying still for long periods of time and they're easy to train. Female dogs, especially, had better temperaments for space, so go ahead and consider them our first canine feminists. Okay, they were being experimented on without their consent, and that's not cool, but come on -- they are pioneers -- paw-oneers, if you will.

1. Laika


This list cannot begin without Laika, the first living creature we sent into orbit that wasn't a microbe. A stray picked up off the streets of Russia, Laika (translated as "Barker") proved to be an obedient, good-natured dog who went through the rigors of doggie space camp well and was deemed fit to be the maiden canine voyager of Sputnik 2 in November 1957. The only problem with this groundbreaking experiment: There was no return trip planned. They hadn't quite figured that out yet, but Russia was so eager to win the Space Race of the Cold War era that they didn't think they had the time. Seems legit ...

The story was dramatized in the graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis, which depicted the scientists taking a liking to Laika and the other dogs they were training. As dogs are wont to do, they got their handlers to love them and care about them. Sending Laika into space with no intention to bring her back safely was a mistake that they acknowledged decades later when the true nature of her demise was revealed in 2002. I'll spare you the incredibly troubling details (and they are truly upsetting, especially if you love dogs), but great pains were taken to make sure the future canine cosmonauts would be treated to at least an attempted return.

We'll get to them in a moment, but first, Abadzis treated bummed out Laika readers to an alternate ending that transforms the sacrificial pup into a vengeful "Cosmodog." So we'll always have that in addition to the literal monument built to honor Laika. Good dog.


2. Dezik and Tsygan


On a happier note, Dezik (pictured above) and Tsygan ("Gypsy") had already made a successful trip into suborbit years before Laika went into "official" orbit. Their trip was shorter, but reached an impressive and promising 110 km (68.3 miles) into the sky, parachuting down to a safe landing on July 22, 1951. This flight was a crucial and hopeful step in the right direction for Russia, who had seen the United States launch monkeys into suborbit only to lose them to repeated crash landings. The usually stoic scientists apparently rushed over to cuddle their brave test pups after their safe landing, breaking rules and letting their guards down. (Dogs are good at making humans do that.)

Sadly for Dezik, her next flight with a dog named Lisa ended the American way -- in a fatal crash landing. But Tsygan found herself a new home with physicist Anatoli Blagonravov, who later served as a diplomat to the United Nations on their space committee and played an instrumental role in getting the USSR and the US to cooperate on an international joint space mission in the 1970s. Though something tells me that Tsygan didn't have to negotiate too much to get what she wanted from her new dad. She was seriously cute. And the first dog to be shot into space, so we can assume she lorded that over him while mooching for table food.


3. Belka and Strelka


So, Russia lost Dezik to a failed parachute and Laika to rushed planning. You're wondering if any of these stories has a 100 percent happy ending. Great news! Belka and Strelka not only flew into orbit, but they were returned and lived happy doggie lives afterwards!

Belka ("Squirrel") and Strelka ("Little Arrow") were sent on a joint mission on August 19, 1960, the first following Laika's successful but tragic journey into Earth's orbit. The intention was to send them where Laika went but this time there was a plan to bring them home alive and safe. And they weren't alone on Sputnik 5; they were accompanied by a menagerie that included a rabbit, 42 mice, a pair of rats, and some flies and plants. The whole crew were the first living beings to fly into space and return alive. All in all, they spent a full day in orbit; Laika had only lasted a few hours and they were celebrated as heroes in the press.

And in case you didn't think that was a great ending, Strelka went on to give birth to a litter of puppies, one of whom was presented to the Kennedy White House as a gift.

Today, the taxidermied remains of Belka and Strelka stand at faithful attention in Moscow's Cosmonaut Memorial Museum. That is everlastingly weird, but at least they got two animated "biopics" as part of their legacy: 2010's Space Dogs, which featured Chloe Moretz in the English-language version, and 2016's Space Dogs: Adventure to the Moon starring Alicia Silverstone and Ashlee Simpson.


4. Damka/Shutka and Krasavk/Comet


For every success and every failure, there is a successful failure. Humans have Apollo 13, dogs have Vostok. Damka and Krasavk, also known as Shutka and Comet, were part of Russia's Vostok program, which was supposed to send the pups into orbit with some mice for company. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. On December 22, 1960, Comet and Shutka were launched into the sky and reached an altitude of 200 km (124 miles) before the engine failed during the third rocket stage. The module containing Shutka, Comet, and the mice separated from the rocket, sending the animals plummeting down, landing somewhere in the Siberian wilderness.

Comet and Shutka, despite the frigid Siberian temperatures (-40C), somehow survived inside their insulated space pod until they were found on Christmas Eve by a search team. (The same cannot be said for the mice.) It wasn't until the next morning, when their handler Armen Gyurdzhian arrived to help open the capsule, that anyone knew they had survived. The plucky little dogs were brought back to Moscow and Comet was adopted by scientist Oleg Gazenko. She went on to have a litter of puppies and live a long, happy life for 14 years.

To add yet another strange turn for this amazing story is that it was actually kept secret until 2013. Soviet authorities wouldn't allow the story of a space failure to be told, as badly as the rocket's designer Sergey Korolyov wanted to tell it.


5. Otvazhnaya


Otvazhnaya ("Brave") isn't known for any groundbreaking space flights, but she did go on several of them. Her first flight was with another dog named Snezhinka and a rabbit named Marfusha. (Imagine the conversations they had to pass the time!) She went on a total of six flights and because she was such a beautiful and prolific lady, she became a propaganda star after so many successes. Otvazhnaya became the subject of a children's book in Russia, Tyapa, Borka, and the Rocket.


6. Veterok and Ugolyok


Last but not least: the record holders. Veterok and Ugolyok were part of the end of space flights for dogs after being preceded by Ivan Ivanovich -- a mannequin who served as the first "non-living human-type being" in space. (Two dogs, Chernushka and Zvyozdochka, also accompanied mannequins on previous separate flights.) But on February 22, 1966, Veterok and Ugolyok accomplished such a scientific feat that it paved the way for extended human space travel. The two dogs were launched into orbit on Cosmos 110 and stayed in orbit for 22 days, a record that wasn't broken by another living being until Soyuz 11 in 1971. (Though it should be noted that while those three human cosmonauts set the record for space endurance, they did not return to Earth alive.)

Not that this history-making journey went off without a hitch -- Veterok and Ugolyok apparently didn't handle the extra long flight very well and were brought back to Earth ahead of schedule. But after some R&R, both regained their health and gave birth to puppies. They still retain their record for the longest in-space flight for dogs.

Laika was obviously not the only dog who was sacrificed in the name of progress, but I thought it best to spare you a case of the sadz. Animal testing is a very heated subject, but at least in this case, humans figured out how to get ourselves into space and gained some adorable heroes in the end.

But please -- let's try not to do this anymore.

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