Canine brave hearts conquer the space

Several flight test shortcomings of the rocket A-4 at Kapustin Yar missiles range, revealed the lack of abstract basis for the acceptance of the engineering designs and so was the amount of work needed to improve the rocket R-1. The materials and processing technology were the biggest challenges for the Soviet industry, lagging behind the latest German technology. Materials were restricted to the domestic supplies and had to be accepted by German rocket specialists. It was needed to select 86 grades of steel, 56 grades of nonferrous metals, 159 non-metallic materials, etc., in order to enhance the rocket reliability in a relatively short time. The rocket designers altered significantly the aft and instrumentation compartments to enhance their robustness, while the rocket flight design range was increased from 250 to 270 km. The A4 rocket motor was the first world design that successfully moved large volumes of fuel to the combustion chamber using gas-turbine driven fuel pumps. The gas-turbine was powered by a hydrogen peroxide volume, of which 130 litres were contained in the small ellipsoidal tank. This liquid was expelled from the tank by compressed nitrogen supplied by bottles mounted on a rack. The thrust main body was one of the key components in the engine assembly, being able to successfully transmit 25-tons of thrust to the rocket and withstood the punishment even though was extremely light. The first Soviet RD-100 engine of the R-1 rocket, was built in 1946 at a former Ilyushin aviation plant relocated to Tashkent during WWII (actual Energomash factory). It derived from a German A-4 rocket engine design, ED-140, without major changes, except for replacement of the large majority of materials with Soviet made materials. The A-4 rocket electrical control system was left unchanged within the first series of rocket R-1, but many instruments had to be redesigned to improve their performance. In the same time, the Ground Support Equipment was developed to allow the launch of the rocket from concrete built sites, with a base plate installed to support a launch pad, shelters for mobile diesel power generators, the cables layout and other necessary launching equipment. Vladimir Pavlovich Barmin was a Chief Designer of the R-1 Ground Complex. The Specialized Design Office “Spetsmach” set up under his authority, became later a leading organization for ground complexes. Rocket R-1 was first launched on September 17, 1948 under the supervision of Sergei Ivanovich Vetoshkin, first deputy chairman of Military-industrial Commission and technical management of Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. During the first cycle of in-flight tests, 9 R-1 rockets were tested, of which only one reached the target (October 10, 1948). The failures were due to a low quality of the rocket subassemblies and systems, insufficient checking and testing of subassemblies, instrumentation, and poor systems design. To improve the rocket reliability, many upgraded flight control system and instrumentation were added to the second series of rockets. A total of 20 rockets were developed (10 calibration and 10 qualification), of which only 17 units accomplished their commission. Additional experiments were carried out to make sure the R-1 launches become free of accidents, so the rocket could enter the service of Soviet armed forces in 1950.   In order to drastically improve the payload and operating performance of rocket R-1, its designers proposed the use of an integral fuel tank and a separable warhead to be detached from the rocket at the climbing phase completion. Thus only the climbing rate was calculated for the launch vehicle, based on given mechanical and thermal loads. The evaluation of climbing phase took under consideration the more favorable conditions compared to the atmospheric part of the descending flight trajectory. The variant R-1A was developed also to investigate particular features of the warhead separation process at the climbing phase completion. After all its modifications, the rocket R-1A became the first rocket to carry science equipment in recoverable containers to upper atmospheric layers, initially mounted in a section of the rocket stabilizers. The solution to separate the warhead turned to be so good as it was employed in all further Soviet rocket designs. To measure the physical parameters in the upper rarefied atmosphere, the R-1A rocket was provided with an instrumentation system code named “FIAN-1”. The scientific data collected during the test flights served as the basis of a thorough geophysical research program meeting the concerns of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The designers upgraded the R-1A rocket following a certain scientific scope (R-1B, R-1V, R-1D, R-1E). All four launches of rocket R-1B that took place in July – August 1951, were vertical and only one launch failed. The rocket carried experimental animals accommodated in a special pressurized compartment to study their behavior in space environment. The variant R-1V differed from R-1B only in that the FIAN-1 equipment was replaced by a parachute system to recover even the rocket body. In total, two launches have been carried out in July – August 1951. Unlike the R-1B and R-1V rockets, where the experimental animals had to be returned in a pressurized compartment on a parachute, on R-1D rocket each of the two dogs was catapulted in a space suit mounted on a cradle provided with a parachute system and a Life Support System (LSS). In addition, on the R-1D rocket, the FIAN-1 science hardware section was modified to accommodate studies on vertical distribution of ionization density in ionosphere and propagation of super long waves in atmosphere and space. All three launches of R-1D rocket that took place in June-August 1951 were reported as successful. The launches of R-1E rocket tried also to solve the rocket body recovery issue, therefore three powder boosters were provided on the warhead to impart a separation velocity of about 12 m/s to it. However, a new constructive option of the return rocket system implied the use of a pyrotechnical charge that could activate pilot chutes and simultaneously release parachute packages containing the main cupolas. In total from January 1955 to April 1956, six launches were carried out of which only four were reported successful.










On July 22, 1951, the world was astonished when the news agencies announced that two dogs, Dezik  and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), made history by performing a sub-orbital flight on board a R-1B rocket. Both dogs were recovered unharmed after travelling to a maximum altitude of 110 km. Dezik made one more sub-orbital flight in July 29, 1951, with another dog named Lisa, but neither survived because the parachute failed to deploy. After the death of Dezik, Tsygan was adopted as pet by the Soviet space physicist, academician and diplomat, Anatoli Arkadyevich Blagonravov. He represented the Soviet Union on the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). He worked closely with Hugh Dryden, his American counterpart, to promote international cooperation on space projects at the height of the Cold War, starting the US-Soviet spaceflight cooperation. Blagonravov was also instrumental in opening the door to international cooperation in human spaceflight. In April 1970, he held informal talks in New York City with NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine, about the possibility of performing a rendezvous and docking of a US and Soviet spacecraft. This led to an agreement signed on May 24, 1972, by US President Richard Milhous Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin, calling for a joint manned space mission. They declared the intent for all future international manned spacecraft to be capable of docking with each other. On July 17, 1975, the crews of a US Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, performed such a docking, visiting each other’s spacecraft, shaking hands, exchanging gifts, and performing joint experiments in space. After the death of Dezik and Lisa, other two dogs, Smelaya (“Bold”) and Malyshka (“Little One”) were launched but not before Smelaya ran off the day before the launch. The scientific crew was really worried that wolves living nearby would eat her, but luckily she returned a day later and the test flight resumed successfully. The fourth test launch was a failure, with two dog fatalities. However, in the same month, the fifth and the sixth of the two-dog launches ware carried successfully. Another libertarian dog named Bolik, ran away few days before his flight in September 1951, so that a replacement dog abbreviated ZIB (Russian “Substitute for Missing Bolik”), a street dog living near the rockets range barracks was quickly retrieved to make a successful flight in space without any previous training. Few more space dogs such as Dymka (“Smoky”), Modnitsa (“Fashionable”), Kozyavka (“Little Gnat”), Lisa “Fox” ) and Ryzhik ( “Ginger”) followed soon on their space quest, flying to an altitude of about 100 km. A female dog named Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”) made a flight on 2 July 1959 together with another dog named Snezhinka (“Snowflake”). She went on 5 more space flights between 1959 and 1960, becoming a superstar as a space dog veteran. Albina and Tsyganka (“Gypsy girl”) were both ejected out of their capsule at an altitude of 85 km and landed safely. Damka ( “Queen of checkers”) and Krasavka (“Little Beauty”) were set to make an orbital flight on December 22, 1960, as a part of the Vostok programme. The upper-stage rocket failed and the craft re-entered the atmosphere after reaching a sub-orbital apogee of 214 km. In the event of unscheduled return to the surface, the craft was to eject the dogs and self-destruct, but the ejection seat failed and the primary destruct mechanism shorted out. The animals were thus still in the intact capsule when it returned to the surface. The backup self-destruct mechanism was set to a 60-hour timer, so a rescue team was sent out to locate and recover the capsule in time. The team could only report that the window was frosted at -45 degree temperatures and no signs of life were detected. Miraculously on the second day, the dogs were heard barking as the capsule was opened. The heroic dogs were wrapped in sheepskin coats and quickly flown to Moscow alive, despite that the space mice aboard the capsule were all found frozen to death. Krasavka was eventually adopted by the scientist Oleg Georgovitch Gazenko, the former director of Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow honoured with the Demidov Prize in 1998. As one of the leading scientists behind the Soviet animals in space programs, he selected and trained Laika, the dog that flew on the Sputnik 2 mission. Krasavka went on to have puppies and continued living with Gazenko and his family until her death 14 years later.


For the Sputnik 2 mission were trained three dogs: Albina, Mushka and Laika. The Soviet space-life scientists Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky and Dr.Oleg G. Gazenko trained the dogs. Albina, that had already flown twice on a high-altitude test rocket, was to act as Laika’s backup. The third dog Mushka was a “control dog” as she was to stay on the ground and be used to test instrumentation and life support. Before leaving for the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Yazdovsky and Gazenko conducted surgery on the dogs routing the cables from the transmitters to the sensors that would measure breathing, pulse and blood pressure. As a result of some last-minute technical problems, Laika had to wait for the launch in the cabin for three days. The temperatures were low, and workers put a hose connected to a heater into the cockpit to keep her warm. Laika ( “Barker”), also nicknamed Zhuchka ( “Little Bug”) and Limonchik ( “Lemon”) became the first living Earth-born creature (other than microbes) in orbit, aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3,1957. Sadly she died on a scientific one-way mission between five and seven hours into the flight from stress and overheating. However her craft was equipped with a life-support system with an oxygen generator and filters to prevent oxygen poisoning and to absorb carbon dioxide. A fan designed to activate whenever the cabin temperature exceeded 15 °C (59 °F) was added to keep the dog cool. Enough gelatinous food was provided for a seven-day flight, and the dog was fitted with a bag to collect the waste. A harness was designed to be fitted to the dog and there were chains to restrict her movements to standing, sitting, or lying down. Due to the capsule restricted size there was no room to turn around in the cabin. An electrocardiogram monitored heart rate and further instrumentation tracked respiration rate, maximum arterial pressure, and the dog’s movements. In 1998, Oleg G.Gazenko expressed his regret for the manner of Laika’s death: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I am sorry about it. We should not have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” As a matter of facts, Laika began her life as a homeless mongrel wandering the streets of Moscow before she was selected by the Russian space program to become the first animal to orbit the planet. She was trained and fitted with a space suit before being launched into space on November 3rd, 1957. Barely 45 years later, in October 2002, during a meeting of the World Space Congress in Houston, Dr. Dimitri C. Malashenkov of the Institute for Biological Problems in Moscow, admitted that only five to seven hours post-launch of Sputnik-2, no signs of life were being transmitted from Laika. By the fourth orbit, it became clear from her extremely rapid heartbeat that she had died from the effects of stress, likely brought on by a combination of fear and the prolonged 104 F degree temperature that occurred when Sputnik-2 failed to separate from its R-7 booster rocket, causing the thermal control system to fail. Sputnik-2 continued to orbit for 163 days and 2,370 orbits, until April 14, 1958, when it burned up during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. There was no recovery procedure for orbital flights at the time, so it became obvious that Laika was the only living creature expected to die in space. On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to honor Laika built near the military research facility in Moscow that prepared Laika’s flight to space, featuring a dog standing on top of a rocket. She also appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow in a form of a statue and plaque at Star City, Russia, the Russian Cosmonaut training facility. In 1985 was released the film My Life as a Dog, where the main character (a young Swedish boy in the late 1950s) identifies strongly with the dog Laika. A 2007 graphic novel by Nick Abadzis giving a fictionalized account of Laika’s life, won the Eisner Award as “Best Publication for Teens.”


Bars ( “Snow leopard”) and Lisichka (“Little Fox”) were sent out on a mission to orbit as a part of the Vostok programme, but died after their R-7 rocket exploded 28.5 seconds into the launch on July 28, 1960. Vladimir Yazdovsky prepared the dogs Belka and Strelka for Korabl-Sputnik 2, the first spaceflight to launch animals into orbit and return them alive to Earth. Belka (“Squirrel” and Strelka (“Little Arrow”) spent a day in space aboard Korabl-Sputnik 2 (Sputnik 5) on August 19, 1960, before safely returning to Earth. They were accompanied by a grey rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, flies and several plants and fungi. All passengers survived. They were the first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive after the death of Laika. The dogs orbited the Earth 18 times and on their return became TV celebrities. Both dogs were preserved by the Soviet Union and can be seen today in Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Astronautics. Strelka went on to have six puppies with a male dog named Pushok who participated in many ground-based space experiments. One of the pups was named Pushinka (“Fluffy”) and was presented to President John F. Kennedy and his daughter Caroline Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. A Cold War romance bloomed between Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named Charlie, resulting in the birth of four pups that JFK jokingly called them pupniks. Two of their pups, Butterfly and Streaker were given away to children in the Midwest. The other two puppies, White Tips and Blackie, stayed at the Kennedy home on Squaw Island but were eventually given away to family friends. Pushinka’s descendants are still living today in the USA. A photo of descendants of some of the Space Dogs is on display at the Zvezda Museum outside Moscow. A Russian animated feature film called Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs (English title: Space Dogs) was released in 2010 ( ).

A few weeks later, on October 24, 1960, tragically a Soviet made R-16 rocket exploded on its launch pad, 30 minutes before its maiden launch killing almost 126 people. The details of the tragedy were classified, so the Soviet leadership did not acknowledge the event until 1989. In 1985, it was reported that a human error was the root cause of the rocket explosion. By that time, URSS was preparing the celebration of November 7 (the Day of the Great October Revolution). The test of the R-16 intercontinental rocket was supposed to become another major achievement for the Soviet rocket technology. Military officials and space industry engineers were in a hurry to meet the deadline. The Communist Party leadership moved quickly to cover up the tragedy. The details on the disaster were kept on a special file at the HQ of Soviet Communist Party. The case was eventually declassified and transferred to the Archives of the Russian Presidential Administration. In the West, the tragedy was dubbed as the Nedelin catastrophe, in honor of Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin, the commander in chief of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and supervisor of the R-16 project. He became one of the victims of the explosion along with most prominent scientists of the Soviet rocket building industry. The official death toll was 78, but estimates are as high as 150. The rocket was over 30 m long, 3.0 m in diameter and had a launch weight of 141 tons. It was fueled with hypergolic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH)-nitric acid, used in US and Soviet rocketry, despite that it is extremely corrosive, toxic and effective binary fuel that produces poisonous gas when burned. All these risks were accounted for in the safety procedures for preparing the rocket launching, but late that day technicians accidentally ruptured the pyrotechnic membranes of the first-stage fuel lines and allowed the fuel into the combustion chamber. Although that was not immediately dangerous, the fuel’s nitric acid component was so corrosive that it could not be in the fuel lines for more than two days without seriously damaging the R-16 rocket. Thus, the rocket team had either to launch the next day, or drain the fuel from the rocket, then rebuild the engine and delaying the launch by several weeks. The program manager decided to fire the rocket and speed up the preparations. Several other rocket components were tested that day and either replaced or adjusted per procedure. The onboard batteries were connected and the safety blocks were disabled in the due course of the pre-flight testing. The resetting of the Power Control Device (PCD), opened the pyrotechnic valves and fired the rocket second stage engines. The resulting flames cut into the first-stage fuel tanks below and they exploded. Automatically activated film cameras set around the launching pad filmed the explosion. People near the rocket were instantly incinerated and those farther away were burned to death or poisoned by the resulting toxic gases. As soon as the engines were fired, most of the site personnel tried to run to their safety, but were trapped in it by the security fence and then engulfed in the fireball of burning fuel. Nedelin and 125 other rocket personnel died right away. It took pathologists weeks to identify the dead bodies. Marshal Nedelin was identified by his Hero of the Soviet Union decoration which did not melt in the fire. Nedelin remains were buried underneath the Kremlin wall. Fifty-six military men were buried in a common grave on the territory of Baikonur. Rocket engineers and designers were buried quietly, according to places of their residence. Soviet Communist Party leadership decided not to disclose the cause of lunch site personnel death.

Only a month after the R-16 rocket disaster, two Soviet dogs, Pchyolka ( “Little Bee”) and Mushka (“Little Fly”) were launched in space spending one day in orbit on December 1st, 1960, on board Korabl-Sputnik-3 (Sputnik 6) with “other animals”, plants and insects. Due to a reentry malfunction when the return rockets failed to shut off as planned, their spacecraft was purposely destroyed by the remote self-destruct to prevent foreign powers from inspecting the capsule on December 2nd and the dogs died. Dog Chernushka (“Blackie”) flew to orbit on board Korabl-Sputnik-4 (Sputnik 9) on March 9, 1961, with a dummy (nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich), mice and a guinea pig. The dummy was ejected out of the capsule during re-entry and made a soft landing using a parachute, while Chernushka was recovered unharmed inside the capsule. Zvyozdochka ( “Starlet”), who was so-called by Yuri Gagarin himself, reached  the orbit on board Korabl-Sputnik-4 on March 25, 1961, with a wooden dummy cosmonaut in a final practice flight before Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961. The dummy was ejected out of the capsule while Zvezdochka remained inside, both space travellers being recovered successfully. Veterok (“Light Breeze”) and Ugolyok (“Coal”) were launched on February 22, 1966, on board Cosmos 110, and spent 22 days in orbit before landing on March 16.  This spaceflight of record-breaking duration was not surpassed by humans until Soyuz 11, in June 1971 and still stands as the longest space flight by dogs ( ).

Veterok and Ugolyok                                                          Laika

Many space scientists believed that humans could not survive the launch and the living conditions of outer space and that is why they regarded the space flights by animals, as a necessary step ahead of human missions.            Laika Memorial

The experimental flights were aimed to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure a Micro-g environment. The only reason the scientists preferred the space dogs, was that the scientists thought the dogs were better suited to endure long periods of inactivity.                                                                        

For that reason the space dogs were trained to stay confined in small boxes for 15-20 days at a time. Only the stray dogs were selected by scientists, believing that they were the only dogs able to tolerate the rigorous and extremely stressing conditions of space flight. Female dogs were particularly used due to their temperament. The suits of the space dogs used to collect urine and feces, were equipped with a special device designed to work only on female dogs. So that they were trained to stand for long periods of time, wearing space suits, in simulators that acted like a rocket during launch. Dogs were placed in high speed centrifuges, simulating the high acceleration of a rocket launch and in small cages to prepare them for surviving in the limited space module. Their laceup suits were fitted with oxygen supply tubes made from a combination of cotton, nylon, aluminium and rubber. Dogs that flew in orbit were fed a highly fibrous jelly-like protein that helped the dogs excrete during long periods of time while in their small space module, but more than half of space dogs were suffering from constipation and gallstones on arrival back to base. The scientists have utilized the animals for testing disregarding their losses because these animals have taught the scientists a tremendous amount of knowledge, than could not have been learned without them. Without animal testing in the early days of the human space quest, both the Soviet and American programs, could have suffered a great loss of human lives, that nevertheless it happened in the due course of human space exploration. By all means those cute pets provided as usually a great service to their respective peoples, that no human could have ever done. They gave their service and often their lives, in the name of technological advancement, opening the way for humanity’s journey into space.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *