Monday, November 3, 2014

Comrade Cosmonaut Canine

Laika in training.

The three year old scrawny mutt suddenly found herself scooped off of the streets of Moscow in 1957 where she had endured a tenuous existence as a street stray.  There were others.  She was taken to a military laboratory where for the first time in her short life she was well fed and warm.  Like the others she was poked and prodded, given all sort of medical examinations, and put through tests designed to test her temperament and endurance under uncomfortable circumstances.  The men and women in the lab coats noted her easygoing personality, unaggressive to the other dogs, eagerly compliant to the wishes of her collective masters.  They invented nicknames for her—Kudryavka or Little Curly for the tail that curled over her back and her pointed ears that curled forward,  Zhuchka or Little Bug, and Limonchik  or Little Lemon. Vladimir Yazdovsky, leader of the scientists, called her “quiet and charming.”
Little Curly, the moniker that won out among the staff, was selected to be one of three dogs to become the first animal in orbit.  The happy little dog had brown markings including a mask on her face separated by a light stripe from between her eyes to her nose.  That and the curling tail were indications that she was probably part Siberian Husky or some related breed.  But her short hair and more diminutive size indicated that there were other ancestors, probably including some kind of terrier.  After recovering from near starvation on the streets she weighed 13 pounds.  Just the right size.
Kudryavka trained with two other dogs for a mission that was expected to follow the first successful satellite launch by a few month to test if animals—or humans—could survive the intense conditions of pressure on lift-off, weightlessness in space, extremes of heat and cold, and possible cosmic radiation.  Each was placed in increasingly confining cages for periods of 20 days each to test for adaptation to restricted quarters.  They were spun on centrifuges to test their tolerance of lift-off pressure.  Other machines simulated the noise and din of space flight.  All of the dogs were stressed to their maximum capacity and suffered disruptions to their urination and defecation, elevated blood pressure and pulse, and a rapid general deterioration in health.  They were also trained to eat a gelatinous food product that was both unpalatable to the animals, but failed to satisfy a dog’s natural inclination to chew.
The Soviets inaugurated the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 on October 7, 1957.  Nikita Khrushchev was positively giddy at humiliation that the USSR had handed the American space program and at the enormous international prestige that the accomplishment represented.  He demanded that the Soviet space program produce another spectacular event before the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7. 
Space officials were caught flat footed.  The instrument packed payload intended to be Sputnik 2 would not be available in December.  In a panic, they decided to leap ahead with the canine mission.  The trouble was they did not have a final capsule design finished let alone a vehicle constructed.  In just three weeks technicians slapped together a unit from rough sketches and fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants engineering. 
The craft was equipped with a life-support system with an oxygen generator and devices to avoid oxygen poisoning and to absorb carbon dioxide.  A fan was set to activate whenever the cabin temperature exceeded 59 ° to keep the dog cool.  There was enough of the gelatinous food for seven days.  The dog would be fitted with a bag to collect waste.   The canine passenger would be chained from a harness to restrict movement to standing, sitting or lying down with no room to turn around. An electrocardiogram monitored heart rate and other instrumentation tracked respiration rate, maximum arterial pressure and the dog’s movements.  In addition to the compartment for the animal, equipment to monitor solar radiation and cosmic rays was squeezed into the capsule.  There was precious little time to test any of the equipment.
Just before the launch date a final choice was made among the three candidates for the mission.  Despite having experienced—an lived through—two sub-orbital flights the dog named Albina was designated as the back-up for the mission and Mushka, who would eventually make it into space for a one day mission with other animals in 1960, was used as the control dog to compare with the readings from the animal in orbit.  That left the little Moscow stray, now officially renamed by the Soviet propaganda machine as Laika or Barker, a common slang term for Huskies and other Nordic dogs.
Laika and her handlers were flown from Moscow to the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the remote desert steppe of Kazakhstan for final preparations.  Before putting her on board, one of the technicians took her home with him for an overnight visit and to play with his children.  “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live,” he later recalled.  You see there were no plans to retrieve the satellite from orbit.  It would remain in space circling the earth until its orbit deteriorated and fell, burning up in the atmosphere.  Little Laika was doomed.

On October 31, three days before scheduled lift-off, Laika was placed in the capsule.  Before closing and sealing the door a female technician leaned over, scratched her ears and kissed her on the nose.  More than one of her handlers were reported in tears.
The three days before the launch gave Laika an opportunity to settle into the capsule.  Even on the ground conditions were brutal—outside temperatures plunged to the teens at night and a heater had to keep her warm.  Scientists too baseline readings of her vital signs.
Some time in the early hours of November 3—there are conflicting accounts of the exact hour, the rocket blasted off.  Laika’s respiration increased to between three and four times the pre-launch rate and her heart rate increased to 240 beats per minute from 103 before launch and during the early acceleration. After reaching orbit, Sputnik 2’s nose cone was jettisoned successfully but the Block A core did not separate as planned, preventing the thermal control system from operating correctly. Some of the thermal insulation tore loose also tore loose raising the cabin temperature to 104 °F).  ] After three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s pulse rate had settled back to 102 but that was three times longer than it had taken during earlier ground tests, an indication of the stress she was under. She was was agitated but eating her food.
Then seven hours into the flight, all signs of life aboard the space craft stopped.  Laika had died on the fourth orbit, almost surely from over-heating as cabin temperatures continued high.  She died like a pet locked in a hot car on an August day. 
But this was not revealed until decades after the flight.  The Soviets reported that she died after seven day when her oxygen supply was exhausted or, later, that she was euthanized by poison in her food prior to asphyxiation.  Five months later, after 2,570 orbits, Sputnik 2 disintegrated during re-entry on April 14, 1958.
Monument to a space dog.

Laika was hailed as a hero.  She was commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp and commemorated in children’s books and animated cartoons.  Untold thousands of pet dogs were named in her honor over the next few years.  It was said if you called the Laika at some Soviet parks, a dozen dogs would come running.
And she has remained popular, her fame revived during the Valdimir Putin era as the Russian leader seeks to reclaim the glorious high points of the USSR.  In 2008 a monument to Laika was erected at the military research facility in Moscow which prepared her for space flight.
After experimenting with monkeys and even mice in high altitude rocket tests, the United States did not get an animal into space until the Ham, a juvenile chimpanzee made a sub-orbital test of the Mercury capsule on January 31, 1981.  But Ham and the capsule made it safely back to earth and the chimp lived comfortably the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and then at the North Carolina Zoo before his death at the age of 26 on January 19, 1983.


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