Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Muttniks

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"Work with animals is a source of suffering to us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog." - Oleg Gazenko, Russian Scientist and Laika's Trainer

The National Space Centre of the United Kingdom (Leicester, England) recently put a Russian Canine Pressure suit on display, one of the very few that has survived the era between 1950 – 1960 when the Soviets put dozens of dogs into space.

Vostok Program Canine Pressure Suit

The only other suit on display belonged to Laika the dog, and can be seen in Moscow's Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

I've written about Laika before, her 1957 journey in Sputnik 2 (nicknamed Muttnik), and her stone memorial; however, I'm oddly reluctant to get too deeply into the stories of the Russian space dogs, or the lesser-known pair of Chinese space dogs (Xiao Bao and Shan Shan), launched in 1966. First, because there are just too many, and second -– I have an inexplicably dreadful emotional reaction to studying their records. I don't seem to get these feelings when reading about other space animals.

Many folks might think it's because these animals are "pets" – but so are cats, and the stories about cats don't bring tears to my eyes. I've never owned a dog in my entire life. They require dedicated care that I don't have time to adequately offer, and I would not want such a trusting, exuberantly-loving type of animal to feel neglected. So perhaps that's the reason I find dog experimentation hard to stomach: my mental image of a dog's personality.

Belka Strelka
Belka and Strelka

I am in no way attempting to vilify Roskosmos, either. One of their greatest accomplishments was the first recovery of animals from orbit in 1960, the dogs Belka and Strelka, proving crafts could "de-orbit" and bring biological packages home alive to Earth. That was a monumental step forward, and no organization would have allowed a human to try before other living creatures succeeded.

During the Vokshod program later in 1966, the Russians also broke a duration record, putting the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok in orbit for 22 days. This was the longest space flight by any creatures, and would not be surpassed until three humans went aboard Skylab 2 in 1974.

Sergei Korolev (founder of the Soviet space program) loved dogs and preferred his scientists work with them instead of primates, who he thought too excitable and prone to illness. Only females were trained, both for reasons of temperament and because the waste disposal systems were designed to fit female canine bodies.

Sergey Korolev
NASA Archives: Sergei Korolev with
an RD-1 rocket survivor (1954)

All space dogs trained by the Russian program are listed in order on the Wiki, complete with their names and flights. There are tons more resources if you Google around a bit, but this is a nice overview to get a quick impression of scale. The contribution of canines was enormous, and could not possibly be over-stated. To go in depth and truly appreciate what dogs taught us about how living creatures react to space, and really for any student of space exploration history, I recommend Space Dogs: Pioneers of Space Travel by Chris Dubbs.

Theirs is a riveting tale, but please know beforehand that along with some very heart-warming and heroic stories, some of these amazing animals suffered horrific accidents, and I had to put the book aside more than once. But, one cannot truly understand how man reached into space without understanding that we put our alleged "best friends" to the test first.

2 comments:

cdubbs said...

Thanks Heather for drawing attention to this fascinating subject and for plugging my book. For a fuller explanation of the role that dogs and other animals played in space, I'd recommend the follow up book I wrote with Colin Burgess, Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle.
Chris Dubbs

PillowNaut said...

How delightful that you stumbled across my plug, LOL... and I'm happy to say I've ordered your June 2010 release from Amazon myself. I definitely advise other space enthusiasts to order as well --it's being reviewed very well as a reference staple in terms of understanding how we learned about how living things cope with space :)