Amazing Stories

Amazingly Enough: Lost And Found – Russian Space Dogs



laika statueA warning is in order: the following deals with the passing of several no-doubt cute doggies … but what is remarkable about who was involved, when this took place, and what the pups were doing at the time of their demise is that the number is remarkably low.

In some defense, the early years of space exploration – and we’re talking the very early 1950s here – especially in the rather spit and bailing wire world of the Soviet Union, was a pretty “we have no idea what we’re doing” kind of situation. It’s kind of expected – but not excused — that the scientists, engineers, and officials in charge would have used animals, particularly dogs, in their rocket tests.

If you’re feeling smug about the good old US of A … then don’t, for Uncle Sam has more than a few animal expirations on its conscience: in fact, quite a few monkeys, some fruit flies, mice, rats, and more than a few chimps gave their lives during the space race. Other counties, too, have used quite a few creatures in their explorations of the Great Beyond, including a cat (France), a monkey (Argentina), guinea pigs (China), and newts (Japan), plus scores of other animals from other countries.

But what makes the USSR unique in their extensive use of dogs in their early rockets was, believe it or not, a sense of care that appeared in their experiments. Agreed, a few of the early canine pilots were not expected to survive but many were actually recovered more-or-less safely … and a few even went on to fly multiple missions.

The honor of being the first Soviet DOGS … IN … SPACE (sorry) goes to a pair named Dezik and Tsygan who, after being blasted more than 100 kilometers straight up, were safely recovered afterward — though on a subsequent flight, Dezik, with another dog named Lisa, were less fortunate. What would become the start of a touching tradition, Anatoli Blagonravov, the Soviet physicist, afterward took Tsygan home as a pet.

strelka-and-belkaSpace (sorry … again) prevents giving each and every Russian canine cosmonaut his or her entry – after all there were at least dozens who flew – but here are a few of the more celebrated dogs who wagged their tails, or sacrificed them, during their exploration of the new frontier.

On July 2nd, 1959, for instance, Otvazhnaya (“Brave One” in Russian) made a trip accompanied by not just another dog, Snezhinka (“Snowflake”), but with a rabbit as well: Marfusha (“Little Martha”). Otvazhnaya’s flights didn’t end there as she ended up taking an amazing five more.

In a case of “volunteering” for – and escaping from — the Russian space program, in 1951 the scheduled dog, Bolik, managed to slip away just a few days before being rocketed. His “replacement” was a mutt who just happened to be close by. Luckily ZIB (whose name, in Russian, cleverly stands for “Substitute for Missing Bolik”) managed to not just make it into space but land safely afterward.

For a wild story, it’s hard to look beyond the tale (sorry … yet again) of Krasavka (“Little Beauty”) and Damka (“Queen of checkers”), who were part of a 1960 launch … where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong: first, the rocket never even made it into space because the upper stage malfunctioned; and, second, the ejection system to save the dogs also failed – meaning Krasavka and Damka had to ride down in the capsule, landing, in of all places, in a remote snow-covered region.

hector-chatOkay, it’s again easy to think of the Soviet engineers and scientists as heartless but keep in mind that instead of just letting Krasavka and Damka freeze to death they rushed out to rescue the pair before the capsule self-destructed … in 60 hours. When they arrived at the crash site, in -45 degree weather, they unfortunately had to wait until daylight to get the dogs out … though they were heartbroken to see that there were no signs of life inside the capsule. However they were relieved when they heard barking from inside, hurriedly unbolting the hatch they found the pair chilly but otherwise perfectly fine.

Respecting that tradition, Oleg Gazenko adopted Krasavka – who subsequently had many puppies until passing away at the ripe old age of 14 years.

You’ve heard – especially if you live in the United States – of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and Alan Shepard … and if you are particularly well-educated, of  Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin … but then there’s Laika.

On November 3, 1957, this female street mutt from Moscow was put inside a special capsule atop a Russian rocket and blasted into history … and controversy. According to Soviet officials, Laika, passed away six days after launch from lack of oxygen, making her the first living animal to orbit the earth.

dog-space-suitHowever, in 2002, it was finally revealed that Laika had actually perished only a few hours into her flight. The news of the USSR accomplishment spread across the world, giving the Soviets a huge score in the budding space race. But what was particularly interesting about Laika and her flight isn’t just the tremendous valuable information she provided the world but the repercussions of her passing. Even though the truth of her death wasn’t revealed till much later, the Soviets were clear that the capsule, and Laika, were never supposed to make it back to earth: it was a one-way trip.

While there was a great deal of applause directed towards the Soviets engineers and scientists responsible for Laika’s flight there was also a great deal of criticism regarding Laika’s role in it – though, naturally, the USSR didn’t say a word.

iran-says-it-sent-another-monkey-into-spaceHowever, it was as if Laika’s spirit had somehow made more than a scientific contribution: remember a recent mention about how the Russian’s working on their rocket program actively worked to treat their canine subjects with as much care and concern as they could? Well, much of that has been credited to the use – and sacrifice of – that little street dog from Moscow.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Oleg Gazenko himself said of Laika:

“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.”

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