Second in line, first of its kind

In October of 1957, Sputnik 1 became the first manmade satellite to achieve a stable low-Earth orbit. It circled the globe for several weeks, broadcasting radio emissions back down to the surface. One month after the launch of the iconic Sputnik 1, its sister satellite, Sputnik 2 sailed into orbit, carrying with it the first living being from the planet’s surface, Laika.

Sputnik 2’s mission involved collecting data on the effects of space on large organisms. The satellite gathered other telemetry data during its 23-week mission duration.

Sputnik 2’s launch date was scheduled for November 3, 1957, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The pair of satellites became iconic symbols in space exploration as well as of the Soviet Space Program. The two Soviet satellites marked the beginning of progress in the space race, paving the way for the American moon landing 12 years later.

Heavens above

The telemetry data gathered by Sputnik 2 opened our eyes to a whole new world of information about our planet. Prior to the launch of low-orbit satellites carrying scientific equipment, humanity as a whole knew relatively little about what existed just beyond our atmosphere. Although the information was closely guarded by the Soviets, when it was eventually made public, it revolutionized the field of astronomy.

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These clouds of charged particles shed light on the orientation and function of the Earth’s magnetic field and how it interacts with radiation carried out into space by the solar wind. Further study over the years determined that there are at least two Van Allen belts at any given time and that they pose a major threat to the sensitive electronics onboard satellites.

Primarily, Sputnik 2 served as a bioscience module. Its famous passenger, Laika, was the subject of interest for this satellite, which was equipped with myriad biometric instruments to monitor the dog’s vital signs as she orbited the Earth hundreds of miles above the surface.

Born a stray, remembered a legend

Sputnik 1 and 2 became iconic symbols in space exploration as well as of the Soviet Space Program. The two Soviet satellites marked the beginning of progress in the space race, paving the way for the American moon landing 12 years later.

Nestled among electrodes, oxygen monitors, Geiger counters, and spectrophotometers, careening through space so very far from home, sat Laika, the space dog. She was part of a lineup of nine other strays from the streets of the Soviet Union to be considered as the test subject for the first large living thing in orbit. Though her pedigree remains a mystery and speculation as to her parentage is continually up for debate, Laika was, by definition, a mongrel.

Life as a canine cosmonaut was hardly a walk in the dog park. The candidates were subjected to countless conditioning procedures to prepare them for the journey into orbit. Months of progressively smaller cages, rounds in a centrifuge, exposure to loud noises, and transitioning to a nutrient gel diet were all major hurdles these dogs had to overcome if they ever hoped to see the Earth from the fringes of space. Out of the 10 candidates, Laika was eventually selected for the mission due to her health and docile nature.

What unfortunately earned Laika much of her fame was the fatal nature of her mission. The scientists who sent her into space knew that she was destined to die in orbit. Had the mission gone according to plan, Laika would have been given a poison dose of nutrient gel once the tests had been completed and the mission was on its descent. That, however, was not to be the case.

For decades, the circumstances of Laika’s death remained tangled in controversy. Contradicting Soviet reports claimed that she had either been euthanized or that she had asphyxiated after the batteries onboard the satellite failed. The true story of Laika’s fate emerged in 2002, when a mission scientist confirmed that Laika’s capsule had overheated during the fourth orbit, ending her life. Her remains burned up during reentry, along with the rest of the satellite.

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