Why Laika the Space Dog is All Animals

She sparked some of the world's first animal rights protests

by julie gueraseva
illustration by josh hooten
Thursday, November 4, 2021

On November 3, 1957, Laika became the first living being to orbit the Earth. She was launched on Sputnik 2 as part of the Soviet space exploration program, with the USSR locked in a heated race against the United States to conquer space.

A stray mutt from the streets of Moscow, Laika was described as being calm and quiet, complying obediently with her training. It included standing still for long periods of time, wearing space suits, being placed in simulators that replicated the high acceleration of a rocket launch and being kept in progressively smaller cages to prepare her for the confines of the space module. Oblivious to the plans set in place for her, Laika unequivocally trusted her caretakers, who ended up betraying her. The space shuttle was designed to not be retrievable.

The international community reacted. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals encouraged protests at the Soviet embassy in London, and the British Society for Happy Dogs called for a minute of silence for Laika. In New York, dog lovers protested in front of the UN building with signs like “Pick on someone your own size.”

She died within hours of the launch from extreme stress and overheating. Her heart was beating at triple its normal rate, and she was subjected to temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the capsule’s cooling system failed to be effective. Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth for five months with her remains, disintegrating upon reentry into the atmosphere.

Altogether, the USSR sent 48 dogs into space. Oleg Gazenko, one of the lead Soviet scientists on the project, developed a bond with Laika during her training. Despite being responsible for her planned demise, his paradoxical devotion to her was so strong that he insisted on a window being installed in the pressurized capsule — so that she could have a view in her confinement. Three years after her launch, Gazenko adopted a dog from another space mission – Krasavka. She lived out the rest of her life with his family for 14 years.

Gazenko, who died in 2007, carried the guilt of sending Laika to her death for decades. “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog,” he stated during a Moscow press conference in 1998. “When you understand that you can’t bring back Laika, that she perishes out there, and that no one can bring her back…that is a very heavy feeling. After I returned to Moscow from the launch, I left town. I wanted to isolate myself,” he told a Russian reporter at the time.

Another trainer on Laika’s mission, biologist Adilya Kotovskaya (who died at ninety two in 2020), recalled of Laika in a 2017 interview: “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time.”

During many years of Soviet state propaganda, Laika’s launch into space was lauded as heroic, even though she never gave consent to participate in her own death. Monuments were built in her honor, and her likeness was used to sell everything from cigarette cartons to children’s toys.

So why does Laika’s story still matter so much? Because every year over 50 billion farm animals are sent to their untimely deaths – nearly eight times the human population. These numbers don’t include the billions used for fashion, sport and entertainment. Their suffering is as profound as Laika’s was in that space capsule. And just like Laika, they are commodities who are turned into products for human use, whose needs are disregarded and whose innate status as sentient beings is erased.

Laika’s story represents not only the continued needless exploitation of animals at the hands of humans, but our paradoxical and arrogant relationship with them. In their innocence and vulnerability, they look to us for mercy and protection. But we betray them. In so many ways, we are just like that guilt-ridden scientist; we search for loopholes in our conscience, like “humanely-raised meat.” But there is no humane way to force your will on another. There is no gain in exploiting other living beings, there is only loss — the loss of our humanity.

LAIKA Magazine is a tribute to Laika the space dog and to all animals treated unjustly. It is a message of hope that we can repair and rebuild our relationship with our fellow earthlings. In LAIKA lies proof that it is entirely possible to live a life free of harming others. This life is possible for each one of us, thanks to our sense of compassion and our ability to discern between right and wrong. Veganism is simply an actionable way of following what’s already in our hearts.