Laika was a connoisseur of the alleys in Moscow. She was born there in the 1960s and knew how to get food and protect herself from the cold. She was the first dog in the world to try the weightlessness of outer space. This loving animal, nicknamed Kudryavka (‘little curly-haired girl’) by Russian engineers, was not chosen by chance, but had to go through an intense casting: after all, she would provide the final evidence that a man could be sent into space.
But why the interest in her being a street dog? For a very simple reason: stamina. Dogs with a pedigree appeared to be less resistant to adverse conditions. However, it was not just her being a mongrel that played in her favour (or against her, it depends on how you look at it). The fact that she weighed between 6 or 7 kg, the maximum weight admitted by Sputnik 2, and her calm, female character were also key (males needed to lift their legs to pee, a huge logistical problem).
Laika was the first living being to orbit the Earth and Laika’s flight opened the doors of cosmos to humanity. Previous experiments had been conducted e.g. on monkeys in the United States and other dogs in the Soviet Union, but at suborbital altitudes. Sputnik 2 had a food dispenser and an air regeneration system, but supplies would last only seven days. It was known from the very beginning that it would be a one-way trip.
“Our main goal was to send human beings into space, so sacrifices had to be made. On Laika’s flight even I cried with bitter tears. We all knew she would die, and we apologized to her”, declared Adilia Kotovskaya, one of the biologists who took part in the casting to a Russian newspaper, years later.
Sputnik 2 continued to spin around the Earth for six months, until it began to lose altitude and disintegrated as it touched the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. Laika, the Russian hero pilot, saved many lives.