Soviet Dogs: From the Streets to Outer Space

Before the first human entered space, animals were used to gather information on the physiological effects of space flight. Soviet dogs became famous in history for being the first to conquer space.

Soviet space dog

The Soviets preferred dogs over monkeys because - although monkeys are closer to humans in their genetic make-up - they found monkeys to be more problematic, especially when it came to training them. Soviet scientists exclusively used stray dogs, believing they were more suitable candidates because their lives on the streets taught them to survive in extreme conditions, and they would be able to tolerate the traumas of space flight better than domesticated dogs. Only females were used because of their calmer temperaments, and because they were able to relieve themselves easier than male dogs.

Training for space

The training of dogs involved keeping them in small cages for up to 20 days to prepare them for the confines of the space module. They were taught to eat a nutritious jelly-like protein that would be their food in space, and to wear their space suits that had special receptacles to collect urine and feces. A centrifuge and other equipment were used to prepare them for the acceleration forces, vibrations, loud noises and weightlessness they would experience during flight.


On July 22, 1951, Dezik and Tsygan were the first two dogs to make a sub-orbital flight. The rocket ascended to peak altitude of 62 miles before the dogs returned safely back to Earth less than a few hours after countdown. After being removed from the capsule, the dogs were excited and danced about, accepting the enthusiastic attention from the spectators. They were the first animals to survive a ride in a rocket. The following week, Dezik and a dog named Lisa made another sub-orbital flight that ended in disaster. The parachute failed to deploy and both dogs died when the capsule crashed to the ground. Anatoli Blagonravov, a Soviet physicist, announced that Tsygan would not fly any more rockets and took her home with him to be his pet.

The exact number of sub-orbital flights is still unknown, but it is estimated more than 30 were launched, and at least 15 dogs died. One dog named Bobik managed to escape before the rocket was to launch in September 1951. He was quickly replaced by an untrained stray dog named ZIB (Zamena Ischeznuvshevo Bobik - meaning Replacement for the Disappeared Bobik). The flight was a success, and ZIB and his dog partner Neputevyy were safely recovered.



Laika was the first dog, and first living creature, to orbit the Earth. In competition with the US, the Soviets spent only four weeks to design and build a new rocket to accomplish this feat. The limited time did not allow them to plan a re-entry strategy. Laika was not meant to return.


On November 3, 1957, the rocket was launched, reached space and began to orbit the Earth. According to her vital signs, which were being monitored, Laika was under a lot of stress during the launch. Shortly after reaching orbit, she calmed down and her vitals returned to normal.

After the rocket reached orbit the nose cone was jettisoned successfully but the Blok A core did not separate as planned, inhibiting the operation of the thermal control system. In addition, some of the thermal insulation tore loose so the interior temperature reached 104°F.

Shortly after take-off, the Soviets announced to the world that Laika was not destined to return alive and would die in space. The plan was to later euthanize her with a programmed injection. This outraged many people. According to one Soviet official, "The Russians love dogs. This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity."

People were led to believe Laika expired painlessly when euthanized about a week after being in orbit. However, in 2002, the truth was revealed when Dimitri Malashenkov of the Institute for Biological Problems in Moscow addressed the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas - Laika died from overheating and stress just a few hours after the launch. By the fourth orbit around the Earth, about five to seven hours after launch, it was apparent Laika had died when no more life signs were being received.

After Liaka's death, the rocket continued to orbit the Earth before it burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on April 14, 1958 - after 162 days in orbit.

Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, a senior medical scientist, had taken Laika home to play with his children before the launch. "Laika was quiet and charming. I wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live."

At a press conference in 1998, 79 year old Oleg Gazenko, a senior scientist who worked closely with Laika during her training, admitted he regretted sending her to her death. "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."

In 2008, a small monument was unveiled near a military research facility in Moscow that prepared Laika's flight into orbit. It features Laika standing on top of a rocket.

Bars and Lisichka

On July 28, 1960, Bars and Lisichka were on a mission to orbit, but the booster exploded shortly after the launch killing both dogs.

Belka and Strelka

Belka and Strelka were the first dogs, and first living creatures, to orbit the Earth and return home safely. The launch date was August 19, 1960.

Oleg Gazenko holding up Strelka and Belka after a successful flight

Via TV transmissions, neither dog showed movement during the first three orbits. On the fourth orbit, Belka gave a little shudder and vomited which seemed to snap both dogs out of a trance. For the rest of the flight they appeared more alert. While Strelka always looked stressed and on guard, Belka seemed to be enjoying herself.

The spacecraft made a successful landing almost 25 hours after the launch near Orsk in the USSR. The dogs became instant celebrities. Strelka gave birth to a litter of six puppies shortly after her return to Earth. One of her puppies named Pushinka was given as a gift to President Kennedy's family. The space dog's descendants are still living today. Belka and Strelka spent the rest of their lives at the Soviet space institute and died peaceably of old age. Both dogs were taxidermied and their bodies are displayed at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow.

Pchelka and Mushka

This is another story where the truth of what really happened wasn't revealed for many years. On December 1, 1960, Pchelka and Mushka spent a day in orbit before a faulty retrofire caused the capsule to go off course. Having anticipated a problem like this happening, the Soviets installed an explosive device on all of its spacecraft carrying dogs that would automatically explode if the capsule went off course - this was to prevent foreign governments retrieving their capsule and learning their secrets. The world was initially told the capsule had descended too fast and burned up in the atmosphere. Both dogs died in the explosion.

Damka and Krasavka

On December 22, 1960, Damka and Krasavka were headed towards orbit when the third stage rocket malfunctioned. The emergency escape system shot the capsule free of the rocket and it landed about 3,000 miles from the launch site, in a remote region of the Soviet Union. The craft was suppose to eject the dogs, but the ejection seat failed leaving the dogs in the capsule, which helped keep them warm from the outside temperature of -40°F.

The capsules actually had two explosive devices - one to blow up if the capsule went off course, and one to blow up if rescue crews could not find the capsule within 60 hours. Sixty hours passed before the crews could make it to the capsule, but another fortunate malfunction prevented the capsule from exploding. They had to disarm the explosives, knowing it was possible they could all be blown up, before removing the dogs. They successfully disarmed the explosives, but darkness was setting in and they had to wait until the next morning to remove the dogs. No signs of life were detected. The next day, they could hear barking as they removed the container from the craft. Both dogs amazingly survived. They were wrapped in a sheepskin coat, and were back in Moscow December 26.

Oleg Gazenko adopted Krasavka after the incident. She lived with him and his family until she passed away 14 years later. It is not known what happened to Damka after her return to Moscow.

Chernushka and Zvezdochka

Both dogs made a one-orbit flight - Chernushka on March 9, 1961 and Zvezdochka on March 25, 1961 - with a human dummy of a cosmonaut named Ivan Ivanovich. Both flights were successful. The dummy was ejected both times from the capsule and recovered by parachute, and both dogs were recovered with the capsule.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became famous as the first human in space when his spacecraft successfully completed an orbit of the Earth.

Veterok and Ugolyok

Veterok and Ugolyok were the last Soviet dogs to go into space. This flight was to evaluate how humans might be affected by long term space travel. The launch was on February 22, 1966, and the flight lasted 22 days before landing safely. This was the longest amount of time spent in space for any living being, until the ill-fated Soyuz 11 mission carrying three human Soviet cosmonauts in 1971.

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