Laika's Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog

Laika's Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog

by Kurt Caswell


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Laika began her life as a stray dog on the streets of Moscow and died in 1957 aboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik II. Initially the USSR reported that Laika, the first animal to orbit the earth, had survived in space for seven days, providing valuable data that would make future manned space flight possible. People believed that Laika died a painless death as her oxygen ran out. Only in recent decades has the real story become public: Laika died after only a few hours in orbit when her capsule overheated. Laika’s Window positions Laika as a long overdue hero for leading the way to human space exploration.

Kurt Caswell examines Laika’s life and death and the speculation surrounding both. Profiling the scientists behind Sputnik II, he studies the political climate driven by the Cold War and the Space Race that expedited the satellite’s development. Through this intimate portrait of Laika, we begin to understand what the dog experienced in the days and hours before the launch, what she likely experienced during her last moments, and what her flight means to history and to humanity. While a few of the other space dog flights rival Laika’s in endurance and technological advancements, Caswell argues that Laika’s flight serves as a tipping point in space exploration “beyond which the dream of exploring nearby and distant planets opened into a kind of fever from which humanity has never recovered.”

Examining the depth of human empathy—what we are willing to risk and sacrifice in the name of scientific achievement and our exploration of the cosmos, and how politics and marketing can influence it—Laika’s Windowis also about our search to overcome loneliness and the role animals play in our drive to look far beyond the earth for answers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595348623
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kurt Caswell is a writer and professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, where he teaches intensive field courses on writing and leadership. He is also on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His books include Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, In the Sun's House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, An Inside Passage, which won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, and an anthology of nature writing, To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature, which he coedited with Susan Leigh Tomlinson and Diane Heuter Warner. His essays have appeared in ISLE, Isotope, Matter, Ninth Letter, Orion, River Teeth, and the American Literary Review. He lives in Lubbock, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

April 14, 1958, must have been a particularly clear night, one of those nights you remember for the great wash of the cosmos overhead, and for the black blackness of interstellar space punctuated by stars uncountable. It must have been so, for along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and out over the Caribbean, out to the east of the islands of St. Thomas, Antigua, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad, and on to British Guiana (now Guyana), and over a host of ships in the Atlantic positioned between 10 and 20 degrees north latitude, people gazing skyward saw a path of burning light. Some reported that they had seen a comet. Others said it was a meteor, the fiery path of a meteoroid burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, what we like to call a shooting star. And still others reported they had seen a UFO.

But what those people witnessed was not a comet or a shooting star, and it was not a UFO. It was a phenomenon that had occurred only one other time in Earth’s history: the reentry into Earth atmosphere of an artificial satellite, in this case the Soviet Union’s second satellite, Sputnik II. On board was a small, white mongrel dog from the streets of Moscow. Her name was Laika. One of dozens of trained space dogs in the USSR’s new space program, she was the first living being to orbit the Earth. And as the satellite Sputnik II came down, Laika was already dead. Her body, in a state of decay from the cooling and warming inside her capsule as it passed in and out of the influence of the sun, had been in orbit around the Earth for the previous five months, traveling at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour and making 2,570 revolutions. And as Sputnik II’s orbit decayed, and it fell into the friction-wall of the atmosphere, it burned, and the world’s first space traveler, Laika, burned with it.

Here in the 21st century, such satellite reentry events have become almost routine. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that there are more than 21,000 artificial debris objects in Earth orbit larger than 10 cm, and a half million more measuring between one and ten centimeters. Even smaller objects, smaller than one centimeter, number over one hundred million. According to NASA, such debris includes derelict spacecraft, the upper stages of launch vehicles, payload carriers, debris intentionally released during mission operations, debris created by spacecraft or upper stage launch vehicle explosions and collisions, solid rocket motor effluent, and flecks of paint from various spacecraft or spacecraft parts released by thermal stress and small particle impacts. The space around our planet, like our planet itself, is awash in our garbage. This space junk burns up in the atmosphere all the time, some of it visible, some of it not, sometimes as planned by the object’s creators (Russia’s space station Mir in 2001, for example), and sometimes in its own time, or due to a loss of ground control (China’s Tiangong-1 (which means Heavenly Palace) space station, which came down in 2018). The United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) tracks scheduled and nonscheduled reentries, and if you are in the right place at the right time, you might see one, if you can be bothered to look up.

But in 1958 when Sputnik II came down, such an artificial satellite reentry event had happened only once before, and that was Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever, which burned up in the atmosphere on January 4 of that year. The presence of something in orbit around the Earth that human beings had made was still in the realm of the fantastic. It occupied the fictional worlds of writers like Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke, and the imaginations of scientists like Russia’s Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and America’s Robert Goddard. And so fantastic was the idea of one of these satellites coming down so that you could see it come apart across the sky, Italian-born American astronomer L. G. Jacchia made a journey to various key points along the path of Sputnik II to interview people and collect data. He filed Special Report 15 with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory titled “The Descent of Satellite 1957 Beta One.”

The story Jacchia tells is that in the early hours of April 14, Sputnik II fell out of orbit following a path from New York City to the mouth of the Amazon River. Observers in the eastern United States reported seeing a long, streaking tail pass overhead, not yet very bright, and followed by sparks, bursting and shuttering away. The burning satellite passed over Long Island and then went unreported for some five minutes, before being picked up again at about 23 degrees north latitude. By the time it reached Antigua in the Caribbean, it had fallen to about 50 miles above sea level (down from its orbit at about 131 miles perigee and 1,030 miles apogee), and it had become self-luminous, a fireball rivaling the brightness of the Moon. It fell, burning, pulling a long tail behind it, sparks flying off into the blackness. The head of that streak of light, the satellite itself, still carrying the dog Laika, glowed white with tinges of blues and greens through to the tail’s yellowish fire that degraded to oranges and reds out to the end. Pieces of the satellite broke off and burned alongside the main body, before dimming and dropping away. Observers on one of the ships at sea, the Regent Springbok, reported that the satellite looked like the tail of a peacock, “each particle glowing through the spectrum from white to a deep blue in magnificent display.” When the satellite reached about eleven degrees north latitude, east of Trinidad and Tobago, and had fallen to about 35 miles altitude, it exploded in a fiery burst, like a great fireworks lightning up the dark. And in the moments after that burst, an eerie pale light was reported, illuminating the decks of ships at sea, and the sea around them. What was left of Sputnik II and the first space voyager, Laika, traveled on, falling and burning in its arc across the Atlantic and over Suriname and French Guiana, then onto the eastern shoulder of Brazil. As the satellite burned, the dog burned with it. The dry calcium phosphates of Laika’s bones, the salts and minerals and the carbons of her body—the very building blocks of life—dissipated in the upper atmosphere to drift on stratospheric winds. Eventually, some of the matter that had once been Laika, now vaporized and elemental, rained down onto the Earth, where her life began. And somewhere out there headed toward the place where one of the great rivers of the world, the Amazon, meets the sea, Sputnik II vanished completely, still traveling fast above the horizon line. It burned out, and was re-consumed by the great black nothing of the cosmic dark. The entire event unfolded in about ten minutes.


In the year Sputnik II came down, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a bitter stalemate we know as the Cold War, a stalemate pitting Soviet communism and American capitalism against each other, and dominating political, economic, cultural, and even religious patterns between the two countries, and across our world. The year Sputnik II came down, the human population of our planet was just 2.9 billion. And because there were relatively so few of us, there was a whole lot more of everything else. More rhinos, more trees, and more clean water and air. The world was recovering from its second world war, and a growing middle class in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom moved us all forward into a global consumer economy the like of which had never been known before. It didn’t have to go that way, but it did. Not in 200,000 years of the human story had so many people had so much. Not in 200,000 years. Not ever. And probably not ever again.

In 1958, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC, now defunct) established the first transatlantic jet service, flying between New York and London. Such flights are routine in the 21st century, so much so that we call this astonishing feat of engineering and science, “crossing the pond.” The trip that took Columbus and his three ships over two months to achieve, was now possible in about eight hours, and available to most any middle-class citizen of any country in the world. And we have gone faster still. Astronauts on a space shuttle flight out of Cape Canaveral, Florida easily crossed the Atlantic in about nine minutes. Also in 1958, the European Economic Community (EEC) was established, the precursor of the European Union (EU). The New York Yankees defeated the Milwaukee Braves to win the World Series. Elvis was inducted into the US Army. And in the US, a stamp cost three cents, and a gallon of gas cost a quarter.

In 1958 Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and Nikita Khrushchev was named the new Soviet premier. This was the year Russian novelist Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature, but declined to accept the medal at the ceremony in Sweden under pressure from his nation’s government. The Soviet Union had banned publication of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago two years earlier. Meanwhile, the CIA was running a propaganda campaign, and played a central role in the novel’s publication elsewhere to push its perceived anti-Soviet threads into the ring of global politics. This was also the year American pianist Van Cliburn won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, held in Moscow. His final performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Three brought the primarily Soviet audience to its feet, and they stood applauding for eight minutes. The competition was intended to bring Soviet cultural superiority to the world’s stage, but instead that spotlight was stolen by an American, by a Texan no less, who Time magazine later touted on its May 19, 1958, cover: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” In this now famous story, the judges were compelled to ask Premier Khrushchev for permission to award first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have asked. The judges consented that he was. “Then give him the prize,” Khrushchev said.

The prize was given, and in fact, it was given on the very same ordinary Monday that Sputnik II came down. Clearly there was a lot going on that night, and clearly there was a lot going on in 1958. But Sputnik II, together with Sputnik I, towers above most everything else during that year, or during that decade, and arguably, during any decade before or since. That satellite with the little dog inside—its launch, its orbit, and its burning in the atmosphere—is one of the events that has redefined homo sapiens as a species. That event signals a singular moment of self-determination when we first left our planet home to venture into the cosmos, crossing into what Aldous Huxley, and Shakespeare before him, called a “brave new world.” Sputnik I and II are the first steps to humans becoming an inter-planetary species, to becoming Earth independent. In his book Soviet Space Exploration, William Shelton writes of Russian novelist Vladimir Orlov’s determination that artificial satellites and spacecraft are artificial planets because they are populated by all manner of creatures from Earth, including humans. From the time of the first two Sputniks, humans have maintained a continuous presence in space, living and working in low-Earth orbit on various space stations, walking on the moon, and operating robotic rovers, telescopes, satellites, and probes as far out as Pluto, and even beyond. From artificial planets, then, we will continue on to colonize a natural planet, probably Mars. Indeed, private corporations and space agencies in a number of countries have their sights set on a crewed mission to Mars. And it may happen sooner than you think. “There was a time,” writes Orlov, “when terrestrial life stepped over the threshold of the ocean and conquered the land; now it has stepped off the Earth to conquer the abyss of the cosmos.”

What the Soviets did first, and what other nations would do after, resides at the zenith of our curiosity, because to be human is to be curious, to be human is to be an explorer. We cannot help but look outward to the next horizon, to the far-off and beyond, to the distant and the fantastic. We cannot help but dream. It is what we are, and what we do, and it tumbles from the source-root of our biological evolution. In his essay “The First Earth Satellite,” Sergei Khrushchev (son of then Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and a rocket engineer in his own right) calls this source-root, “the naïve confidence that [we] are equal to anything.” Human beings entered upon space exploration, Khrushchev writes, to prove to ourselves “that [we] can touch the stars with [our] hand, that the Moon is only a stopping station, the first step, and that the next step is Mars, and after this anywhere. For me,” he writes, the time of Sputnik “was the best and the brightest time of my life.” The Space Race, during those early years, and even now, writes Khrushchev, “was a race not to the death, but to immortality.”


Until Laika’s flight, scientists did not know what would happen to a living organism outside the protection of Earth’s atmosphere where there is no oxygen to breathe, weakened gravity, and increased radiation. What were the effects of solar radiation (from our sun), and cosmic radiation (from outside our solar system) on a living organism in orbit? The Van Allen belts had yet to be discovered, and their role, along with Earth’s magnetic field, in shielding the Earth and its atmosphere from radiation, was not well understood. How long, scientists wanted to know, could a living organism survive in orbit? Five minutes? Three days? One year? No one knew. And what were the effects of microgravity, or weightlessness, on a living organism? Can the body’s organ systems function in microgravity? Or does the whole thing just shut down? No one knew. Oleg Gazenko, a physician who helped select and train Laika, notes in an interview for the BBC documentary film, Space Dogs, that “It was absolutely essential to have an answer to the question: was weightlessness really an insurmountable barrier to the chances of a human surviving any length of time in the conditions of space travel?” And even if a human being can manage increased radiation and decreased gravity, can he survive the flight into space, can he survive the g-force of an accelerating rocket, and the violent vibration of that wild ride? No one knew. So before sending a human being into orbit, we sent Laika, a little white dog from the streets of Moscow, who would test these unknowns for us. “Quite simply,” writes Olesya Turkina in her book Soviet Space Dogs, “without the first dog in space there would be no human space flight.”

Laika rode into orbit on November 3, 1957. The USSR reported that she survived for about a week, returned a stream of valuable data that would help make human space flight possible, and then she died a painless death as her oxygen ran out. In a statement, Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev announced that “the data gathered on cosmic rays during the flight of Sputnik II [was] of great value” and that “the study of biological phenomena made during the space flight of a living organism—something done for the first time in Sputnik II—[was] of tremendous interest . . . The time will come when a spacecraft carrying human beings will leave earth and set out on a voyage to distant planets—to remote worlds,” he said. “The way to the stars is open.”

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