Return of the space dogs

Laika, the first space dog, died in orbit. But the next two – Belka and Strelka – survived. One of Strelka’s puppies was gifted to John F. Kennedy… but not before it was fully scanned for secret listening devices.

Музей Космонавтики, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Laika was the first dog in orbit. She wasn’t the first animal in space, though: the United States shot a monkey into space on a V2 rocket in 1949. Neither Laika nor the monkey survived their ordeal. Laika died of overheating and stress; the Monkey (named Albert II) crashed to Earth when his parachute failed to deploy.

In anticipation of sending humans into orbit, the Soviet Union began planning to get some dogs into orbit and safely bring them back home again. The first two dogs, Chayka (aka Bars) and Lisichka, died when their spacecraft exploded. The second attempt, however, was a success. For the first time, humans put animals up into orbit without actually killing them in the process.

Korabl-Sputnik 2 was the mission. The two dogs were Strelka (pictured above) and Belka; they were accompanied by a rabbit, mice, rats, flies, plants, and fungi. Those other animals were not the space dogs’ in-flight dinner, of course, but part of the scientific mission to examine the effects of space flight on living creatures. You can see the dogs, and the flight, in this video:

Strelka and Belka orbited the planet seventeen times and then parachuted home safe and sound. They were the first animals from Earth to successfully leave the planet and come back alive.

The dogs had a pretty happy life on their return. Well, happier than Laika at least. Strelka had puppies. A year after the flight, in 1961, the Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev gave one of those puppies to US president John F. Kennedy. Pushinka was a cute dog, but (this being the height of the Cold War) the Americans suspected foul play. What if this puppy was actually a spy?

Incredibly, the CIA examined Pushinka for embedded listening devices. All their medical checks failed to turn up any canine espionage and she was released to the Kennedy family. Her descendants are still alive and kicking around today.

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