The Dogs Who Paved the Way to Space for Gagarin

The Dogs Who Paved the Way to Space for Gagarin

Published: April 20, 2011 (Issue # 1652)


Belka (r) and Strelka are held up at a press conference after their flight.

While the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union putting the first man in space was celebrated across the world last week, less well documented are the many canine cosmonauts who preceded Yury Gagarin. Clothed in secrecy for many years, details of the experiments continue to come to light even now, half a century later.

A total of 42 dogs took part in experimental space flights during the Soviet Union’s race to put a man in space, as recently revealed in secret data released by Igor Bukhtiyarov, head of the state research institute of military medicine at the Ministry of Defense.

“After the satellite launch [on October 4, 1957] Sergei Korolyov, the leading Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer, began to prepare animals for a seven-day flight,” said Mikhail Khomenko, a professor and leading researcher at the Research Institute of Military Medicine where the dogs were trained (then known as the State Research Institute of Aviation and Cosmic Medicine).

The finished version of the spacecraft was equipped with a life-support system and devices for recording the animals’ physical condition.

“A mixture of food and water containing all the necessary nutrients was provided as a gel and stored in airtight containers. The lid automatically opened twice a day, allowing the dog to eat the contents,” said Khomenko.

“Space clothing was designed for the dogs, resembling a sort of waistcoat equipped with a sanitation device. Modern clothes for pets take a lot of inspiration from those space suits,” he added.

Ten dogs took part in the training; among them were Laika, Albina and Mukha. Their training included being placed in centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch, being put in a recompression chamber, and being closed in a small cage to get them used to the confines of the cabin of Sputnik 2. Laika, a female stray, had the best reaction. Her destiny was to become the first animal to orbit the Earth and to give her life for the achievements of science.

“On November 3, 1957 Laika began her journey,” said Khomenko. “It was a great event. But scientists had not yet learnt how to bring animals back to Earth. It was a joy to be able to send an animal into orbit, but at the same time everyone regretted that Laika died due to excessive heat and stress after four orbits.”

In the media, however, it was reported that the dog had died painlessly about a week after take-off. Only in 2002 did an employee of the Institute for Biological Problems in Moscow reveal the truth at the World Space Congress in the U.S.

According a BBC News report dated November 3, 1957, the National Canine Defence League called on all dog-lovers to observe a minute’s silence every day that the dog was in space. Animal welfare organizations expressed outrage at news that the Russians had sent a dog into outer space. The statement that Laika was not destined to return alive caused anger and shocked many world observers.

The experiment, however, allowed Russian scientists to learn much about the prospects for human space travel. Laika proved that a living organism could survive for several hours in a weightless environment, paving the way for human space travel.


“Laika hailed the era of mankind in space,” said Khomenko. “This flight had enormous significance for world science, and for Russia’s prestige. Laika is identified with our country throughout the world. Every space museum has a stand devoted to her.”

In 2008, a monument to Laika was erected on the territory of the institute where the dog was trained.

The Russian space engineers’ next task was to send a living creature into space and bring it back alive.

Twelve dogs were trained for the next space flight. They had to meet certain criteria, including a weight of six kilograms and a height of no more than 35 centimeters. The dogs chosen were strays, on the basis that they are generally hardy and open to contact, and thus easier to train. Females were preferred as it was easier to make a sanitary device for them. They also had to be light-colored for easier observation and have an attractive appearance in case the experiment succeeded and they were presented to the media.

They underwent the same training as Laika, plus an ejection procedure. An ejection truck used in these experiments was recently exhibited at the Military Medicine Museum in St. Petersburg.

“The most difficult thing about training the animals was to adapt them to the conditions of the confined cabin of the spacecraft. They were kept in gradually smaller cages for long periods of time,” said Khomenko.

“Finally the dogs were put into a closed airtight capsule with the conditions of a real space flight,” he said.

Two strays nicknamed Belka and Strelka achieved the best results, and on August 19, 1960 they were launched in a Vostok spacecraft from the launch site that is known today as Baikonur. The dogs were dressed in red and green-colored outfits, and were accompanied by several rats and 40 mice, as well as flies, plants and fungi.

The life-support system allowed the animals to eat and breathe normally while inside the spacecraft. For first time in the history of space exploration, a video monitored the state and behavior of the dogs in space.

“After entering weightlessness, the dogs adapted to the conditions of space. There were no abnormalities and the 24 hours passed without any deviation,” said Khomenko.

“On the fourth orbit around the Earth, Belka began to show signs of stress, which was a sign that for the first human flight, it would be better to have only one orbit.”


The flight lasted for more than 25 hours, during which time the spacecraft made 17 full orbits around the Earth. On August 20, 1960 the ejection capsule carrying the dogs landed within 10 kilometers of the planned landing site. Both dogs were alive, and were later proudly presented to the press.

The news of Belka and Strelka spread all over the world. They continued to live in the Institute of Aviation Medicine and were often taken to schools and kindergartens. Strelka went on to have six puppies with another dog from the institute named Pushok, one of which, named Pushinka, was given by Nikita Khrushchev to Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the U.S. president.

“It’s nice to know that the descendants of our Pushok are still alive somewhere,” said Khomenko.

The taxidermied space dogs are now exhibited at the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics.

Two more dogs named Pchyolka and Mushka became the next canines to be sent into space, but they died when their spacecraft disintegrated during re-entry.

“To send a man into space, we needed to make two successful flights that simulated the planned human flight, so the experiments continued and on March 9, 1961 Chernushka was successfully launched into space,” said Khomenko.

The dog Zvyozdochka was Gagarin’s immediate predecessor, being launched into space on March 25, 1961 — just a few weeks before Gagarin himself. Gagarin witnessed the flight take off.

Zvyozdochka was accompanied by a life-size cosmonaut mannequin called “Ivan Ivanovich.” They completed one orbit, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and successfully landed in the Perm Region on the border with the Udmurt Republic.

The Vostok capsule in which Zvyozdochka traveled was bought last week at Sotheby’s by Russian businessman Yevgeny Yurchenko for nearly $2.9 million. It had earlier been sold to a collector outside Russia.

“I hope that Vostok will take its rightful place in one of the national museums devoted to the history of the Russian space program,” Urchenko was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The data obtained from the space dogs’ flights paved the way for human space travel.

“Without the dogs and their flights, we would never have been able to take that step in the certainty that it was safe,” said Khomenko.

Leave a comment