Icon: Laika

Itar-TassLaika: from stray to space pioneer.
Nov. 3 marked the 50th anniversary of the first orbital spaceflight by a living being. On this date in 1957, a dog called Laika was launched into orbit aboard Sputnik 2.

To commemorate the date, a bronze statue was to be unveiled opposite the Institute for Military Medicine near the Dynamo metro station. A month later, however, there is still no sign of a sculpture. RIA-Novosti quoted the Russian Institute of Medical-Biological Problems' professor Yevgeny Ilin as saying there had been delays in receiving necessary permits because of officials' "bureaucratic procrastination."

Before her flight, Laika had been a stray on the streets of Moscow. Along with two other dogs, she was trained to withstand the stresses of space travel. Scientists hoped to adapt the dogs to the confinement of a small cabin by keeping them in increasingly smaller cages for up to 20 days. While the two other dogs were used in preliminary testing, Laika -- dubbed "Muttnik" by the U.S. press -- was the dog destined to stardom.

One month earlier, after the successful orbital flight of Sputnik 1, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had ordered that a second spacecraft be launched in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on Nov. 7. The team of scientists was given only four weeks to design and build a craft that would keep the Soviet Union one step ahead of its Cold War rival by sending a living passenger into space.

This rush meant that at the time of Laika's flight, scientists had not yet developed the mechanisms necessary to bring her space vehicle back to Earth. Laika was never meant to return from space; the life-support system on board was designed to sustain her for only one week. A malfunction caused the cabin to overheat, however, and Laika perished after no more than seven hours in space.

The media coverage that followed Laika's flight focused largely on its political implications in the context of the space race. In the Soviet Union, her death wasn't even officially acknowledged until a week later. In Britain, the National Canine Defense League called for dog owners to observe a minute's silence.

Still, Laika became an icon, appearing in novels and comic books, on cigarette packets and stamps. Despite her tragic end, she helped prove that a living being could survive in conditions of zero gravity, thus paving the way for human spaceflight.