This weekend we remember a very brave little dog who had the questionable honour of becoming the first animal to orbit the Earth. On 3 November 1957 Laika (‘Barker’ in Russian) shot into space on board the Soviet spacecraft, Sputnik 2, in an experiment to test the feasibility of human spaceflight.
When the stray mongrel was picked off the streets of Moscow her fate was sealed. Chosen for her good nature and calm disposition, Laika was trained for a mission into space with no plans for return. Fitted with electrodes to transmit her vital signs, she entered orbit inside a padded capsule attached to the rocket. The date and circumstances surrounding Laika’s death were shrouded in mystery until October 2002, when it was finally revealed that she had died merely hours after launch when the thermal control system in the capsule broke.
The sorry tale broke hearts around the globe. Even one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space eventually expressed his regret for Laika’s suffering, commenting: ‘The more time passes, the more I’m sorry… We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.’
In 1972 Soviet artist duo, Komar & Melamid, featured Laika as the star of their painting Laika Cigarette Box. The canvas was included in the ‘Color is a Mighty Power!’ exhibition in 1976 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, one of the first US exhibitions of nonconformist Soviet art. The godfathers of the Sots Art movement, the Soviet equivalent of American Pop Art, are known for their satirical artworks. But the depiction of Laika stands out as a surprisingly poignant tribute to the innocent animal who was unwittingly thrust into the middle of the Cold War Space Race.
Today, Laika is also memorialised in a statue at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training facility, and in the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow, where her likeness is included alongside other heroes of the Russian space program.
Images: Top – Komar & Melamid, Laika Cigarette Box, 1972. Oil on canvas © Komar & Melamid. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York; Bottom – Detail of Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow. Photo courtesy SeattleFlyerGuy’s All-Purpose Travel Blog