Leading the way: Soviet space dogs

sciencemuseum.org.uk, 2017

by Glenn Rice

'She was a hero, flying as many as three times – twice in rockets, and a third on board the satellite, the forerunner of the ship which was used for Yuri Gagarin's flight'- Oleg Gazenko, Soviet aviation medicine specialist on space dog 'Comet'

The era of manned spaceflight began in April 1961 with Yuri Gagarin's orbital mission in Vostok 1, but Gagarin wasn't the first living being to leave Russian soil and journey into space. A select group of Moscow street dogs had gone before him, whose participation in the Soviet space programme during the 1950s played a crucial part in making human spaceflight possible.

By the fifties, questions about whether humans and animals could survive a trip to space had emerged from the then-new field of space biology. Was it possible to survive the extreme accelerations and decelerations of launching and landing? How could basic life-support – air, water and food – be supplied off-planet? Would the experience of weightlessness harm the occupants of a small capsule?

To get the answers, the limits of endurance of living creatures would have to be tested, as would the efficiency of life-support equipment. Training regimens for crews needed to be developed and tests performed in space, and it all had to be completed before any risks could be taken with humans.

Four-legged cosmonauts

The long build-up to Gagarin's flight in Vostok 1 began in 1951 with the start of an extensive series of test flights that would continue through the ensuing decade, each of them carrying one or more dogs on board. By the time Gagarin finally left Earth, 48 dogs had gone ahead of him and 28 had survived the trip.

They weren't the first animals to enter space. A few others had been sent up as test subjects since the late forties, including monkeys launched in V2 and Aerobee rockets by the Americans. Those early flights all ended with the deaths of their passengers, but they demonstrated that animals could cope with the intense G-forces and pressures experienced during rocket launches.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev decided that the Soviet space programme would work not with monkeys, but with dogs. His choice of man's best friend over his closest genetic relative had an emotional basis but was entirely rational: the ability to build strong bonds with dogs would ensure their obedience. Only strays from Moscow's streets were used, as it was thought that their harsh lives would have strengthened their will to survive.

Strict criteria applied when the first squadron of so-called 'future space scouts' was recruited. Clothing and toilet technology was easier to tailor to female dogs, so only females were chosen. They had to be small enough to fit into tiny capsules, weigh no more than 7 kg to accommodate strict payload limits, and have light-coloured fur that would show up clearly in documentary footage. Mission scientists tried to duck that last rule by bleaching the fur of one of their favourite dark-haired dogs, but it didn't quite work.

One small step for man's best friend

Veterok and Ugoljok, space dogsOn 22 July 1951, following six months of training, Tsygan (Gypsy) and Dezik were launched into space on an R-1 IIIA-1 rocket, the first of the many dogs whose experiences of stratospheric, sub-orbital and later orbital flight would provide vital primary knowledge about the effects of space travel on living creatures.

They and their successors were also used to test ejection and parachute landing systems and other equipment that would later be utilised by cosmonauts.

The launch took place in the Kapustin Yar region at the first Soviet cosmodrome. As the calculations of pioneering scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had predicted, the R1 quickly attained a speed of 8 km per second. At a height of 110 km the head of the rocket containing the dogs separated and started free-falling back to Earth.

Gypsy and Dezik experienced intense G-forces during descent, but after a heavy jolt from its parachute their capsule slowed and touched down safely. The trip lasted 15 minutes, its two canine participants having made history as the first animals to experience space flight and return to Earth unharmed.

Up, pup and away

Gypsy and Dezik's trip into space was followed by six years of stratospheric dog flights, during which an unfortunate few dogs were killed. But, as with the American flights of the late forties, information gathered from those flights helped scientists to determine that living beings were more likely to survive a trip into space than not.

After the successful last-minute launch of an untrained puppy called ZIB (a Russian acronym for 'Substitute for Missing Dog Bobik'), Korolev was ecstatic. Greeted by the happy little dog at the landing site, he announced to his colleagues: 'Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!'.

Laika, Belka and Strelka

The early tests, conducted in secrecy, had culminated in a final question: could a living creature survive for a prolonged period in zero gravity? A month after the very public launch of the satellite Sputnik 1, a dog called Laika was sent into orbit inside Sputnik 2 with the aim of finding out.

With no means of returning her safely to Earth, mission scientists knew they had sent the gentle creature on a one-way mission. She was provided with enough supplies to sustain her for a week in orbit, but she overheated and died only a few hours after launch.

Laika's sad story stands in sharp contrast to the happy tale of Belka and Strelka, whose joint mission followed three years after Laika's and became the most successful of all the Soviet dog flights.

On 19 August 1960 the pair completed 18 orbits and returned to Earth in perfect health, where they were greeted by the international press at a news conference in Moscow. In a tremendous PR coup for the Soviet space effort, their friendly, smiling faces were broadcast all over the world.

Strelka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which, Pushinka, was given by Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev to America's First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The gift was given in June 1961, two months after Korolev's chosen first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human being to enter space.