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Meet the Soviet Space Dogs

History of dogs in space

Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Arrow”) commemorated in graffitti

Cast your mind back to the space race. Humans, being a little on the cowardly side, were uncharacteristically polite and let animals go up first. While the USA used monkeys in their space flight tests, the Soviets were sending dogs up to the stars, and these brave pups are the subject of a fascinating piece by Duncan Geere on Looking Up.

There were 27 adorably named dogs sent up into space between 1957 and 1966, and astoundingly the majority of them returned to Earth unharmed. This is in stark contrast to the monkeys used by the US, two thirds of which would die in Space. The Soviets favored dogs thanks to “their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity”.

Strelka, stuffed and displayed in Australia in 1993. Bignoter / CC BY-SA 3.0

Strelka (“Arrow”), stuffed and displayed in Australia in 1993.

The relationship between the Soviets and their space dogs is fascinating, with a real respect for the animals involved, some of whom were adopted by high ranking Russian officials after their public service was done. One of the dogs who didn’t make it back – Laika (“Barker”), a stray from the streets of Moskow – was commemorated on future postage stamps, and Oleg Gazenko a scientist involved in the mission regretted her passing as late as 1998 when he said:

“Work with animals is a source of suffering for all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Gazenko went on to adopt later space dogs Damka (“Queen of Checkers”) and Krasavka (“Little Beauty”), who had miraculously beat the deadline of a 60 hour self-destruct timer, despite the rocket being buried in Siberia’s -45C snow.

Laika Stamp 2

Laika (“Barker”) commemorated on a postage stamp

It’s a long read, but a fascinating one. Without these canine contributions the Russians would never have been able to launch Sputnik or Gagarin, and the Space Race might never have begun.

Read the full history of Dogs in Space on Looking Up.

Photo: V Vizu/CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo: Bignoter/CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo: Neveshkin Nikolay/

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