As companions in our centuries of wandering and settling, dogs have given their loyalty blindly, in both good and bad, as sacrifices to animal testing, as scouts to survivors on battlefields, as guardians to sleep by the door at night. The Soviet space program enlisted dozens of strays from the Moscow streets to test new spacecrafts, with dogs giving their lives in orbit or even before liftoff, such as in 1960, when Bars and Lisichka died in a rocket booster explosion. A new book — Soviet Space Dogs — published this month by FUEL collects 350 illustrations of these Russian canines as they were canonized as symbols of the Space Race.
Edited by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, with text by Olesya Turkina, the book examines how the mutts were turned from unwitting test subjects into popular heroes. As explained in the release:
These homeless dogs, plucked from the streets of Moscow, were selected because they fitted the programme’s criteria: weighing no more than 7kg, measuring no more than 35cm in length, robust, photogenic, and with a calm temperament. These characteristics enabled the dogs to withstand the extensive training that was needed to prepare them for suborbital, then for orbital space fights.
Unlike the Americans, who favored simian test subjects, the Soviets used dogs right up to Yuri Gagarin’s flight (the canine Zvezdochka orbited with a stand-in wooden dummy). As Oliver Wainwright wrote at the Guardian, “Monkeys, although used in the American space programme, had been rejected by the Russians for being too emotionally unstable and fidgety. Placid, long-suffering dogs were to become an astronaut’s best friend.”
One of the propaganda posters in the book shows Belka and Strelka — the very first Earth animals to make it back from orbit safely in 1960 — in a rocket cradled by a stern man in worker’s overalls. The text reads: “The way is open to man!” Rather than the roomy red spaceship in the poster, though, the dogs were packed into tight spaces, elevated to iconographic glory only after the start of their potentially fatal journeys. One of the sadder stories included in Soviet Space Dogs is the most famous: that of Laika. While it was revealed in 2002 that she suffocated very shortly after launch, Laika was idolized as the first Earth animal in orbit with her ride on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Her fox-like face was illustrated on postcards, children’s books, and even cigarettes, becoming as much fiction as fact.
“It is no wonder that dogs should figure in the long story of man’s presence on the planet,” author N. Scott Momaday wrote in a 2007 World Literature Today essay on canine companionship. “Their tenure is the same, or it is so closely alike as to be indistinguishable.” And the furry shadow of Laika, Strelka, and Belka stretches into the present. A statue of Laika was erected at Moscow’s Military Medicine Institute in 2008; one of the 1950s dog spacesuits was sold at auction this past weekend for €14,000 ($18,148); Belka and Strelka are taxidermied alongside other space artifacts at the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. And the use of animals in space testing has hardly ended. Science News recently posted a sobering timeline of animal death in space programs, ending with the geckos sent up in a Russian satellite this July to study reproduction in microgravity.
A cenotaph for Laika rests alongside the War Dog Memorial in Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York, encircled by memorials to dogs who were employed in such service as World War I, the Oklahoma City Bombing recovery, and police forces. It’s in this context that the Soviet Space Dogs images are best viewed — a visual for the implications of this interspecies bond, in which the obedience of one creature has propelled us to our current state.