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Just 30 days after sending the first manmade object into orbit, the Soviet Union made a second leap ahead of the United States in the space race by sending a living creature into the skies on November 3, 1957. A 13-pound terrier, Laika, became the first lifeform to leave Earth for the final frontier.
Aiming to demonstrate the advances of Soviet technology, the USSR surprised the planet when it put Sputnik 1 in orbit at the beginning of October 1957. With the spherical satellite passing overhead every 96 minutes, a new era defined by the drive to literally achieve new heights took hold of people in far-flung locations. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, wishing to give his country a point of pride on the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, ordered an unscheduled event and sent his engineers into a scramble to move plans for a canine mission forward -- the spacecraft would have to be designed and built in just weeks.
On November 3, 1957, Soviet ambition became clear: with the launch of Sputnik 2, it was obvious there would come a day when man moved into the upper atmosphere and beyond -- the 13-foot-tall cone contained a small capsule for a living creature, systems to regulate heat and an oxygen system. A small Samoyed terrier named Laika (Russian for “Barker”) was sealed into the compartment and fired into the sky above an SS-6 Sapwood rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Russia, modern Kazakhstan.
Weighing a little over 1,100 pounds, the spacecraft circled Earth slower than its predecessor, completing an orbit every 104 minutes. A malfunction upon achieving the operating altitude ripped some of the protective insulation loose. Able to stand and lie down in the tiny cabin she occupied, with access to a semi-liquid food source, the dog was now subjected to extreme temperatures -- 104F within her living space.
Monitored from the ground with electrodes and state-of-the-art radio equipment that allowed transmission for 15 minutes of every cycle around the planet, Laika showed signs of distress from the start, but managed to keep her appetite. Unable to bring the capsule back to Earth, scientists estimated she would survive for ten days before dying, either due to the severe conditions or by succumbing to a poisoned food supply installed to keep her from suffering through the fires of reentry. Due to the heat and general difficulties associated with the trip, she lived for a few hours -- maybe two days.
In the brief period measurements could be taken, Russian Mission Control gained valuable insights into the stresses posed on biological systems by space travel. Sputnik 2 would orbit for 162 days before dropping into the lower atmosphere and burning up on April 14, 1958.
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