Laika was a stray that had been picked up on the streets of Moscow. At the time there was no technology – or plans – to bring her back to Earth.
One of the technicians preparing her capsule said that "after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight."
The launch was designed to show that a living passenger could survive being thrust into orbit and endure micro-gravity, paving the way for space travel by humans.
It also paved the way for furious protest across the world, nowhere more so than in Britain. The BBC’s switchboard was jammed by irate callers even before an announcer had finished reading the news bulletin of the event.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was also threatened with telephonic meltdown until a quick-thinking employee told callers to "make your protest direct to the Soviet embassy” – and gave out the number.
The League Against Cruel Sports expressed "horror and contempt" for the behaviour of the Russians "beside which the sickening stories of the inhuman cruelties of the Middle Ages fade into insignificance."
And as the protests grew, the National Canine Defence League appealed for one minute of silence across the country at 11am every day.
Lady Munnings, wife of the Royal Academy's former President, Sir Alfred Munnings, demanded: “Instead of dogs, why not use child murderers, who just get life sentences and have a jolly good time in prison?"
As protesting dog lovers massed outside the Russian Embassy in London, First Secretary Yuri Modin was forced to make a statement. "The Russians love dogs,” he insisted. “This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity."
So what happened to Laika? Although Moscow long insisted that she expired painlessly after about a week in orbit, an official with the Institute for Biological Problems leaked the truth in 2002: Laika died from panic and overheating within hours of takeoff.
The spacecraft circled Earth every hour and 42 minutes, travelling at 18,000 mph. But after five to seven hours into the flight, all signs of life received from the spacecraft stopped.
Over five months later, after 2,570 orbits, Sputnik II—including Laika's remains—disintegrated during re-entry on April 14, 1958.
One Vietnamese farmer was bewildered by it all. He complained: "I don't understand. Dogs are supposed to be eaten, not carted around through space."
Published: October 6, 2016
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