The first creature from Earth in space was Laika. Her trip was always planned by the Russian scientists as a one-way ticket – there was no return contingency. It is believed that in the atmosphere of wanting to beat the Americans to putting an animal in space as quickly as possible, Laika’s mission was rushed, with no though to bring Laika back to Earth.
The Russians had presented Laika as a national hero, parading her in front of the Russian people, and really treating Laika as a celebrity before her trip to become the first animal to orbit the Earth. However, when it was revealed that there she died in orbit and there was no plan to bring her home, their PR stunt backfired. There was widespread condemnation throughout the world. They had created a heroine in Laika, and then allowed her to die, all in the space of a couple of weeks. Whilst the USSR and the Russian President would usually ignore negative reactions, the strength of feeling for Laika was much more than they ever anticipated.
Such was the sensitivity of the issue, it was only in 2002, that the true nature of Laika’s death was officially revealed. Until then, the Russians maintained that Laika died in space due to her Oxygen running out. The real reason was that Laika had died only a few hours after takeoff due to stress and heat exhaustion. A sad end for a very brave dog.
Due to the backlash of public opinion, Laika became the only dog sent into space by the Russians where they did not have a plan for bringing them back home. In her own way, Laika ensured the safe return of other canine cosmonauts. Sadly, whilst other dogs did die as a consequence of the Russian Space Program, those fatalities were as a result of unforeseen technical problems. In the atmosphere of the space race, such accidents claimed the lives of many human cosmonauts and astronauts too.
At a Moscow press conference in 1998 Oleg Gazenko, a senior Soviet scientist involved in the project, later came to regret his role in Laika’s death and stated “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.”
Fortunately, the sad end of Laika’s story was not repeated by all canine space explorers. The vast majority of those used by the Russians thankfully returned to Earth safely.