Laika: First Animal In Orbit
Laika postage stamp. Public domain

Laika: First Animal In Orbit

01/11/2017Written by Tamela Maciel

60 years ago, Laika's historic flight paved the way for manned spaceflight.

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Laika stamp of Hungary. Credit: Public domain
Sputnik 2. Credit: National Air and Space Museum/Art Dula

When America and Russia first set about the task of sending a human into space, there were a huge number of open questions. Would a human be able to survive the g-forces of launch and landing? Would the harmful radiation above our atmosphere make them sick? Would they even be able to swallow food as they became weightless?

There was no way to know for sure without actually sending living organisms into space.

Hence the early space pioneers – fruit flies, monkeys, mice, dogs, cats and even a tortoise – paved the way for the human astronauts that followed. Their flights into space proved – with increasingly complexity – that animals could breathe, eat, and perform basic tasks in space.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Laika the dog, the first animal to orbit the Earth. Her historic flight was one of the defining moments of the Space Race, and Laika quickly became a household name. Sadly her symbolic mission was only ever intended as a one-way trip and she died only a few hours into her flight.

Laika is by far the most famous animal ever to have travelled into space. But despite common misconception, she was not the first animal in space, or even the first dog in space.

Laika was preceded by a host of mice (first flight in 1950), monkeys (first flight in 1949), and even the humble fruit fly, which had the honour of becoming the first living organism in space in 1947. But these were all sub-orbital rocket flights, which meant the rocket went up into space and came straight back down without spending time in orbit around the Earth.

Laika’s flight was different. Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth so she became the first true test of prolonged weightlessness.

What’s astonishing about her flight is just how quickly it came after the first ever object in orbit – Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957. The world had only just recovered from the shock of the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik 1, and less than a month later, on 3 November 1957, the Soviets shocked the world again with the launch of Laika on a vastly more complicated satellite, Sputnik 2. The timing was no coincidence – the Soviet Union was keen to mark the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution with something truly remarkable.

Laika. Credit: Don P Mitchell

Laika. Credit: Don P Mitchell

Laika was a stray dog from Moscow who was selected for both her hardiness and her docile behaviour. She was trained in a centrifuge to get her used to the g-forces of launch, trained to eat a high-nutrition gel as food, and trained in progressively smaller cages to replicate the spacecraft size. During her final days before launch, one of the Soviet scientists took her home to play with his children, knowing she wouldn’t survive the flight.

On 31 October 1957, several days before launch, Laika was strapped into her satellite on top of a modifed R-7 rocket where she sat until the early morning of 3 November. During launch her heartbeat soared to 240 beats per minute but she was calm enough to eat food once she was weightless, proving that eating in space was possible.

Unfortunately the spacecraft’s heating never worked properly and Laika died due to heat exhaustion only about five hours (four orbits) into her flight. This fact was only revealed by Russia in 2002. Laika’s spacecraft, Sputnik 2, continued to orbit the Earth for another five months until it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in April 1958.

The world reacted to Laika with a mixture of astonishment, humour (endless variations of ‘muttnik’), and admonishment. True to nature, Britain took the side of the dog and as the news broke, phone lines were jammed with animal rights activists trying to reach the Soviet Embassy in London. The Daily Mirror ran with the headline: “THE DOG WILL DIE, WE CAN’T SAVE IT”.

Sadly, many of the early animal missions were one-way trips, either deliberately or due to spacecraft malfunction. In the 1950s and 60s they were part of a heated race to prove dominance in space, with all the desperate measures that the Cold War allowed. The human astronauts that followed were no less ‘guinea pigs’ – and repeatedly launched on new or barely-tested hardware. They were, after all, test pilots.

Laika was not one of the lucky animals that returned, but her flight proved that it was possible to survive in space for several hours. Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space in 1961, and all the astronauts followed owe a depth of gratitude to the scientists, engineers, and animals who proved it was possible to survive in space.

Find out more at and help us mark Laika’s historic mission on Saturday 4 Nov during our Laika 6o event.

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.