It’s a cold night in 1957 in Moscow.
The neon lights of a restaurant beam off of the wet streets. In a dark alleyway, a young employee in a dirty apron exits out the back door.
As he trudges out into the alley taking out the trash, a swift, small movement catches his eye.
It's a stray mutt.
The man watches for a moment as the dog chomps on a chicken bone from an overturned garbage can. The dog stops eating, lifts up her head, and stares the man down.
The restaurant worker tries to shoo her away, but the dog won’t budge. So he steps over her, picks up the overturned garbage can, and empties his pail inside.
As he puts the lid back on the can, he notices the dog’s ribs; it’s clear she hasn’t eaten a good meal in ages, and she’s in rough shape. But, there’s plenty of food inside, the man thinks, so he goes back to the kitchen to look for scraps.
A few minutes later, he returns with a half-eaten chicken breast. But when he steps back out into the alley, the dog is gone — captured only moments earlier by a dog catcher.
But she’s not headed for the pound. Instead, she’s on her way to make history.
After three years of scavenging the streets, this mutt will end up over 1,600 miles from Moscow in the desert of Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
The dog’s been drafted into the Soviet Space Programme—and she’ll become the first animal ever to orbit the Earth.
From Noiser and Airship, my name is Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 3rd, 1957: Laika, the Space Dog.
Act One: Training
It’s October 1957, about a month before Laika’s launch.
A cold wind blows over the choppy steppe of the Baikonur desert, whistling through the scorched remains of rockets that never made it into space. This frigid wasteland is home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the heart of the Russian space program.
Inside a building on the site, two men sit across a table from one another: Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, and rocket scientist Sergei Korolev.
Years earlier, In 1938, Korolev was falsely accused of obstructing Soviet space research. He was arrested, then locked up and tortured in one of the many prison camps that make up the Soviet Gulag. Ultimately though, he was acquitted of the crimes, but he’s hardly a free man.
He is now the Soviet’s top scientist in their secret space program—hidden from the public eye.
He’s also the man beating America in the Space Race.
Just yesterday, Korolev successfully shot the world’s first satellite into orbit. Sputnik 1’s launch and successful orbit is sending shockwaves through the West, and tensions between America and Russia are growing, as the two countries make space the newest front in the Cold War.
Since World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States have poured billions into rocket technology. And it’s not just for national pride; many see the domination of space as a distinct military advantage. But with the unmanned satellite Sputnik, the Soviets got into orbit first. Already, plans are in motion to get a Soviet cosmonaut there next. But at this stage, no one quite knows how a human will function in orbit.
At their meeting, Khrushchev informs Korolev that in light of Sputnik 1’s success, he wants another launch. He wants it to coincide with the 40th Anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution on November 7th, and he wants it to be spectacular.
Khrushchev’s order gives Korolev only weeks to prepare a second launch. But it can't be a mere repeat performance. This Sputnik mission will be different. One of its primary objectives is to help determine how living creatures fare in orbit—and a small, female dog will be the test subject.
Launching a rocket into space is a type of mathematical gymnastics. Precision and balance are required. Every decision is a tradeoff, including the size and weight of any passengers; the lighter the payload, the less fuel the rocket will require.
Laika, the stray snatched from the streets of Moscow, is the ideal weight—6 kg or 13 pounds. But there’s another reason strays were chosen instead of well-bred dogs. Their scavenging lifestyle and exposure to Moscow’s harsh winters and scorching summers make them more resilient and adaptable. Or so the Soviet scientists hope.
One thing is certain: training strays is cost-effective, and the leaders of the financially strained space program are looking to save money anywhere they can.
For the dogs, the training is rigorous, including intense obedience and passivity tests. Dozens of dogs fail, but Laika passes with flying colors. Then the dogs are subjected to terrifying and deafening simulations of liftoff and spun in a centrifuge to emulate launch and gravitational effects.
When it’s her turn in the revolving contraption, Laika’s pulse doubles, and her blood pressure spikes. Still, Laika shows promise. She seems ”resilient and adaptable.”
Even the dogs’ kennels become a test, as Laika and the other canine candidates are kept in increasingly smaller cages, to accustom them to the cramped quarters they’ll encounter on their trip into space. Many dogs panic, uncomfortable with the confinement. They’ll acclimate, or be cut from the program.
At each stage of the training, the number of candidates drops. But Laika continuously adapts and quickly wins the favor of mission scientists.
One of the most demanding challenges for the dogs is the change to their diet. Laika is forced to eat jellied chow. In a weightless environment, it’s easier to serve than typical food, but not all dogs accept it. Those that can’t are cut, as well.
By the end of the trials, the scientists narrow down their selection to just two dogs: a small, white, fluffy mutt named, Albina, and Laika.
Meanwhile, Sergei Korolev’s Sputnik 2 is ready. Korolev also has a launch date — November 3rd. To study and document the first animal in orbit, Korolev has armed the spacecraft with systems to feed biological data back to Earth and measure cosmic rays and solar radiation. He’s also mounted a television camera to watch the first space dog on her mission in real-time.
The only thing left, now, is to choose which dog will go into orbit. Between Laika and Albina, the mission scientists still favor Laika. But this decision is not easily made. Sputnik 2 is a suicide mission. The scientists know Laika will not return. The objective is for Korolev to monitor and measure life signs in space, not to attempt a safe return to Earth.
Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, one of the mission scientists, trained with Laika. For Yazdovsky, the idea of sending her up to her death is heartbreaking. Laika is one of the friendliest, sweetest dogs in the program. It’s not fair, Yazdovsky thinks; Laika didn’t sign up for this.
But the mission will be a go, regardless of what is fair or not.
Then only days before Laika’s launch, Dr. Yazdovsky has an idea. He puts Laika into her cage and drives her to his home. Once there, her cage is opened and Laika bounds out to play in the yard with Yazdovsky’s children. For Laika and the kids, it’s a happy moment.
For Yazdovsky, it’s bittersweet. He went on to say, “Laika was quiet and charming… I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”
The next day, Yazdovsky brings Laika back to the training facility. Both Laika and Albina are scheduled for surgery to implant medical monitoring devices that will record and transmit their vitals throughout the mission.
Next, Laika and Albina begin the journey from their training facility to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. But even there, training continues. The dogs are put inside the capsule and made familiar with the feeding systems. They need to learn, to feel comfortable, to stay calm. Because in a matter of days, Laika will be loaded onto the top of a rocket and blasted off into history.
Act Two: Launch
It’s October 31st, a few days before Laika’s launch. Laika is strapped inside the Sputnik 2 capsule. She remains calm as the launch crew around her secures her into what they all know is her casket.
For the next three days, she will be stuck inside the cramped capsule, waiting for liftoff. A connected heater keeps Laika from freezing during the Baikonur desert nights, and by day, she remains confined and immobile until the day of the launch: November 3rd, 1957.
It’s a bitterly cold morning.
As mission scientists prepare her for launch by grooming her, Laika doesn’t fuss. She doesn’t seem worried or scared. She’s oblivious that, in just a few short hours, she will be the lone passenger on a historic flight.
From the control room, Korolev watches nervously as the countdown begins. For the Soviets, the rush into space has been met with many disasters. Everyone at the Cosmodrome knows Laika might not even make it to space. Too many rockets never get off the launch pad.
But Korolev has done his part. All he can do now is watch and wait, hoping Laika’s flight will provide the data he needs for the Soviets to send a human into orbit.
Soon, the countdown nears completion. Engines flicker, then roar to life. The rocket shudders and lurches. Laika is shaking inside the cabin. Sputnik 2 lifts off the pad.
Immediately, the sensors' readings alarm the scientists. Laika’s heart rate soars to 240 beats per minute. She’s panicking, and her body signals her terror. For a moment, it looks like she might not survive the launch.
The rocket continues to accelerate, surging upward and reaching the edge of space. Once there, the scientists slump in relief; biological data confirm that Laika is alive.
And then Laika makes her first turn around the planet.
Korolev has successfully placed a living being into orbit for the first time, once more beating the Americans.
Laika is not the first animal or living organism to reach space. The Americans have shot fruit flies and monkeys into space. None returned alive. The Russias sent two other dogs into space prior. But Laika is the first to orbit the Earth.
Still, despite Korolev’s success, Laika’s flight hasn’t gone according to plan. In the process of separating the Sputnik 2 capsule from the rocket, the thermal insulation tore. The thermal control system can’t cope. The cabin’s temperature is rising.
Laika started the day on the freezing Kazakhstan steppe, but now the capsule’s interior thermometer is reading 40 degrees Celsius—104 Fahrenheit. The scientists monitoring Laika are worried. It has taken three hours for her heart rate to settle from launch—much longer than it took during ground tests. In all her training, she was never in a weightless environment. Laika grows increasingly uncomfortable, and distressed.
She’s not the only one feeling the heat. The launch of Sputnik 2 with Laika aboard shocks the American people, again—they fear that Soviet technology surpasses their own. Twice now, the Soviets have beaten the Americans to major milestones in the Space Race. Many fear there can be no catching up.
As for Korolev, it’s another feather in his cap. Laika has brought him a step closer to achieving one of his dreams—putting a human into orbit, and maybe one day landing a person on the moon.
As for Sputnik 2, there is no re-entry plan. Its batteries die and the computer shuts down on November 10th, 1957. The craft ceases to transmit. Months later, in April 1958, Sputnik 2 re-enters Earth’s atmosphere after 2,570 orbits. People in New York witness a fiery streak as Sputnik 2 burns up in the sky above them.
Act Three: Controversy
After the launch, the Soviet press claims Laika survived four days in orbit before she died from overheating in the cabin. They claim her death was peaceful and painless. But decades later, the truth will be revealed. Four hours into Laika’s mission, she struggled as the cabin heated up. Somewhere between the fifth and sixth hour, the heat was too much and her organs began to give out. Seven hours into the flight, Korolev and the scientists stopped receiving signs of life.
At the time, there is no controversy over the death of Laika in the press. The public doesn’t question the use of dogs for experimentation. But outside of Russia, in the aftermath of Laika’s mission, a fierce debate ensues.
The experiments imposed on Laika and the other space dogs were far from kind. Years later, Soviet scientists admitted their remorse.
In 1998 Oleg Gazenko, a scientist who worked with Laika, said, “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
In the wake of Laika’s tragic suicide mission in 1960, Korolev successfully sends two more dogs into orbit: Belka and Strelka. But each time, Korolev manages to return them to Earth alive.
These early experiments also made it possible for Korolev to shoot the first human into orbit. Yuri Gagarin circled the earth in April 1961.
History is overflowing with unjustified sacrifices. Whether Laika’s sacrifice was necessary is uncertain. But through them, we learn how we progress…hopefully into a better future.
Next on History Daily. November 4th, 1979. United States diplomats and citizens are held hostage after a group of militant Iranian college students take over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Luke Kuhns.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.