Monday, April 2, 2012

Laika...Space Dog

This post was inspired by ABCWednesday's weekly meme, and "Bully" movie coming out this week in NYC and LA (April 13th in other selected locations).

Laika, in 1957 became the first animal launched into space and while not the first animal to be abused in the name of 'science' - her story is remarkable and moving. 

I have chosen to write about Laika because this week an extraordinary film "Bully" is being shown in LA and New York City and (as of April 13th) in selected theaters throughout the country about bullying.  I think the two stories are in some ways, connected. Both Laika's story as told by Nick Abadzis and the film, I hope, will help all of us be kinder to those not like us, not as strong, and those less fortunate. 

Laika's story:
Laika was a stray dog who found her way into the Soviet space program and was chosen to be the first animal to be launched into space.  She was found wandering the streets of Moscow, was an 11 pound female mutt approximately three years old who had already endured conditions of extreme cold and hunger. While her true pedigree is unknown, she was believed to be part husky/part terrier. While the Soviets knew Laika would not return, the goal of sending her (aside from the propaganda agenda) was to prove that a living passenger could survive launch, orbit, and endure weightlessness, paving the way for human spaceflight.

Historical Background: The 1950's was a time of tension and competition between the Soviet Union and the United States and the space race was one of the frontiers to feel this tension.  After the success of Sputnik 1 - the first satellite to orbit earth, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader wanted to launch a spacecraft with the first sentient being into space on November 3, 1957 - to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sputnik 2 Mission: With the goal of making a public statement in mind, Khrushchev and the planners decided to have a dog orbit in Sputnik 2, an obvious precursor for human space travel. At this point in time, little was known about the impact of spaceflight on animals AND the technology to return from orbit had not yet been developed.  There was therefore, no expectation of Laika's survival, nor was there any reference to whether animals could survive launch or survival in space once in orbit. The Soviets, therefore, were under no illusion - Laika would not be returning.

According to Russian data recently released, the official decision to launch Sputnik 2 was made in October, giving the team about 4 weeks to design and build the spacecraft.  The Soviets had been planning on sending a canine up for some time and had narrowed the selection to three dogs, from the initial 12 they began training.  Aside from carrying Laika, Sputnik 2 also carried instrumentation for measuring solar radiation and cosmic rays.

Laika's training: Laika and two other dogs were trained by the Soviets for this mission.  To adapt the dogs to the confines of the tiny Sputnik 2 cabin, they were kept in progressively smaller cages for periods of up to 20 days. The animals were placed in centrifuges to simulate the acceleration of a rocket launch and in machines that simulated the noise of the spacecraft.  They were also trained to eat a special high-nutrition gel that would be their food in space.

Laika's flight:Sputnik 2 was equipped with an oxygen generator and devices to avoid oxygen poisoning and to absorb carbon dioxide.  A fan, designed to activate when the cabin exceeded 15 degrees Centigrade (59 degrees Fahrenheit) and food for a seven-day flight was provided. Laika was placed in a harness to  restrict her movements in the tight capsule (so she would not be tossed around the padded cabin or hurt), and was fitted with a bag to collect waste. Her heart rate and respiration were tracked as was her limited movement in the cabin.

Documents have shown that after launch and reaching orbit,  the nose cone was jettisoned successfully, but the "Block A" core did not separate as planned and this prevented the thermal control system from operating properly.  Some of the thermal insulation tore loose, raising the cabin temperature to 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit).  Heart rate and pulse monitors showed Laika was under stress but she did eat some food, and after five to seven hours into flight, no more life signs were received from the space craft.

Sputnik 2 made 2,370 orbits and returned to Earth after traveling 100 million kilometers on April 14, 1958.  The satellite dropped out of orbit and the spacecraft with Laika's body burned up upon entering Earth's atmosphere.

Laika likely died within hours of launch and while the initial report was that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, her actual death - from overheating - was not made public until 2002.

As noted in Wikipedia, In 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika expressed:
"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."
On April 11, 2008, the Russians unveiled a memorial for Laika - a stature and plaque at Star City, Russia, the Russian Cosmonaut training facility.

The graphic novel: Nick Abadzis and First Second Books have published an extraordinary graphic novel detailing Laika's story. It is an excellent read for kids (8+) and adults.  Nick Abadzis' graphic novel, while telling Laika's story also relays the political and ethical issues faced by the scientists, politicians, animal handlers and trainers. We learn from words, images and great graphic design about the emotions and issues facing Laika and her trainers.

This panel is one example. I love how Mr. Abadzis portrays the trainer's blank face.  On the one hand her opinion is clearly of no value to her superiors.  On the other hand, she cannot show emotion or her true feelings because she would have been relieved of her job.  Throughout this incredible book and story we see the interplay of language, art, color, and graphic design.

Teaching suggestions.  Laika by Nick Abadzis can be used to teach and discuss:
  • History, particularly the Space Race and the Cold War;
  • Science and technology: ethical, social, technical aspects;
  • Ethics of animal research;
  • The use of image, graphic design, color selection, and prose to relay various dimensions of a story;
  • I would recommend pairing it with October Sky by Homer Hickam.  I will be featuring lesson plans for this book in my book Teaching Content Area Graphic Novels which will be published at the end of this year.   
Thank you for visiting.  Please leave your thoughts, reactions, and opinions in the comments. Have a great week.

For those interested, below is the full page 143 further detailing the author's use of color, graphics, image and prose.  It's a great book and reading in its entirety.  It is a wonderful statement of humanity.  We see the director taking Laika - out of the lab, with the image of a bereft, helpless trainer (notice this use of black/white foreground and background).  Notice also the director's face.  He's sad, and we see in the remaining images that he has taken Laika to his home, to play with his children before she is sent into orbit. 
Thanks again for your visit.
Have a great week.


  1. I am such a dog lover that I couldn't bare to read the whole thing ~I felt so sad ~ I commend you for writing this ~ and thanks for linking up to Magical Monday Meme ~ thanks, namaste, ^_^

  2. Thank you so much for linking up with Makes My Monday...would you recommend this book for 10-year olds?

  3. Wow...I've never heard of Laika (and I have a science degree!). It's really least they admitted what happened, even if it was years later. Thanks for sharing at Teach Me Tuesday!

  4. Very very sad- I so hate anything to do with cruelty to animals- especially when they are defenseless and rely on us like children....
    Happy Tuesday to you- visiting from Tiggerific Tuesday! Blog Hop...or Bounce!

  5. blog hop follower from Daddy Waddy Weeviews

  6. What an interesting post. I never realised Laika was a stray. Sadly we are still abusing animals but at least it has been reduced in recent years inb the UK which is some small consolation.

    (My L is here)

  7. It was something of which I only remember the first part (the launch), not the outcome. Sad tale.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  8. Heartbreaking story about Laika. It saddens me how many animals are treated poorly in the name of science. Carver, ABC Wednesday Team

  9. I have always felt horrible thinking that earth life in space started with this story. :(

    thanks for this tribute so people can know this story.

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    verification makes it really hard to comment. you'd get more comments if you turned it off

  10. I had never heard this about Laika before. To read about what they put those dogs through and then how they perished in space is very sad.

  11. Very interesting post here thanks for sharing.

    Inviting you to join here
    Water World Wednesday

  12. Great historic information and fantastic choice for the letter “L”, Meryl! Of course humans too have suffered and died in an effort to explore dangerous new territory. But at least they are capable of making a choice. Animals are so vulnerable in our care and we all too often bury our heads in the sand about how cruelly they are treated.

  13. I like her name. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

    Littlest Petshop
    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

    1. Yes, I remember Laila! How sad that she was launched, while everybody knew that she would never come back alive. I also remember that a monkey was launched into space at one time. I wonder what became of him. He must have felt very lonely and scared. No, I don't like animals being treated like that. Thank you Meryl for this interesting post!

      Wil, ABC Wednesday Team.

  14. Indeed-a thought provoking and educational post. I was too young to be aware of that event (plus we probably did not have a tv at that time and radio was limited). I am sad, though, that we humans have the ability to think less of any living creature.

  15. Thanks for sharing this book, Meryl! I do remember Sputnik program and can not say with certainty that I knew of Laikas involvement. I do understand esp back in those early days of space exploration they did not have the science and no how of sending unman-ed ships that would collect enough data to see if humans would survive space flight. I remember the USA used a monkey ( another name that escapes me) At least mankind has reached knowledge enough to do a lot of testing on things before release to the public at large & for things here on the ground & out in space. I do not like using animals for research, but I also find it unkind that many humans have been abused to in research. I know that in the USA the drug manufacturers pay people to test their new drugs for effectiveness, but even that comes with hazards, and can't show all the possibilities that can happen. I do think the Russians have at least made an attempt to show that they are not all that happy with how things were done with many things in this memorial for Laika. We are inquisitive creatures by nature, and we still have much to learn. ~Faythe @ GMT

  16. I have read about this ... so very sad.

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