By Susan DeLay
Wandering the city streets, begging for food, and trying to stay warm, she didn’t have much to offer anyone. Someone who is homeless might be more inclined to hope for a hot meal and a dry bed—not to make history.
But that’s exactly what happened. In a flash, she rocketed to a prominent career as a cosmonaut—the first female space traveler in history. And all this despite the fact she’d never gone to school. Not even obedience school.
Her name was Laika. She was a mutt, and her rocket ship was significant in a little competition called the Space Race.
In October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik I, the world’s first unmanned space flight. You may have heard of it—if not in the news, or history class, then in a game of trivia. Sputnik I, the size of one of those stability balls people sit on to strengthen their abs, weighed about 185 pounds. Hurtling through the atmosphere, it orbited Earth in a little more than 90 minutes. That single event started a decades-long rivalry between the US and the USSR, formerly known as Russia. And currently known as Russia. Again. (Some people just can’t make up their minds.)
The US entered the space race with Vanguard, which means forefront or in the lead. With a name like that, no red-blooded American thought the Soviets stood a chance. They were wrong.
One month after Sputnik I came and went, Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of Russia (who looked remarkably like Wooly Willy) raised the stakes. He decided Russia should launch a spacecraft on the 40thanniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which ushered in Communism. Since people were afraid to say no to the leader of the Community party, scientists had to get busy.
Moscow, we have a problem.
To meet the November 3 deadline, the Russian equivalent of NASA had to build and launch a new ship in four short weeks. Khrushchev did not want just any spacecraft. He wanted a space spectacular that would stun the world and show up the competition, which, of course, was the good ol’ US of A.
With Sputnik II, engineers were charged with testing life support systems in space, which meant finding something alive to send in the capsule. Enter Laika, a Husky/Terrier stray nicknamed Pupnik. (Get it? Puppy/Sputnik. Those Russians are clever.) Laika was selected partly because strays were survivors but mostly because people who had dogs as pets weren’t likely to sacrifice them for risky adventures like space travel.
Because she was friendly and even-tempered, Laika was less likely than a high-strung Chihuahua to freak out when strapped into a harness, sealed into a metal capsule, and jettisoned into the solar system. After launch, her heart rate went from 103 beats per minute to 240. No wonder. The poor dog was weightless and confused about what was going on. She didn’t know the half of it because things were about to get worse.
Laika had only a tasteless gel-like concoction to eat. As the first female in space, you’d think she could have rated something better, like bacon. Then, a failure in the thermal insulation raised the temperature inside the capsule to 104 degrees. The stress of it all was too much for Laika to bear. She died between five and seven hours after lift-off.
Russian engineers confessed they never expected the dog to survive. All dog-manauts were disposable. (Sssh. Don’t tell PETA.) But Laika was not ignored. Fifty-one years later, she was honored for her sacrifice to the space program. At Russia’s Star City, the training facility for cosmonauts, stands a statue of Laika perched atop a rocket. There’s also a plaque because what’s a statue without a plaque?
Laika never became rich like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, however, she did earn her place in history.
She might have preferred Liver Snaps.
Susan DeLay is from the Buckeye State where she took her first paying job at the age of 15, writing a newspaper column called Teen Talk. She lived in the Chicagoland area for 20-some years before giving away her shovel and ice scraper and moving to The Villages.
An industry veteran in publishing services, PR, and media relations, Susan wrote “DeLayed Reaction,” a newspaper column, for 25 years. The column is now a blog at www.susandelay.wordpress.com.
She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, The Florida Writers Association, Pen, Paper & Pals, The Writers League of the Villages, and Working Writers Critique Group. She is currently learning that poems don’t have to rhyme and is working on a novel entitled “Saving Jesus.”