When it came to deciding which living creature would be first to orbit the earth, the Soviet Union chose the dog. And specifically, stray female dogs. Russian space scientists believed that such animals possessed the requisite characteristics for successful missions – self-reliance, calm and the ability to tolerate long periods of boredom.
Altogether, the Soviet Union provided positions for 57 dogs, though some dogs were repeat passengers, so the total number of dogs in space was smaller. Of these dogs, most – though not all – returned alive and well to earth.
After a number of dogs had completed sub-orbital test flights, the first living non-microbial creature to orbit the Earth was the dog Laika ("Barker"), who flew aboard Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957. As scientists had known from the start, Laika would not survive her voyage.
The official report was that Laika died when her oxygen supply ran out. Only in 2002 was it revealed that Laika had died of stress and overheating.
It was three years before Laika's path around the world would be retraced – this time by an entire menagerie. In 1960, two dogs – Belka ("Squirrel") and Strelka ("Arrow") – together with a rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, some flies and a range of plants spent a day orbiting the planet. All returned safely to Earth, and Belka and Strekla were hailed as heroes.
Laika, Belka and Strelka were soon followed into space by a long line of dogs, each of which left Earth as a stray and returned as a national – and international – celebrities. Their likenesses were reproduced on every conceivable product. Here is a sample of those products, taken from the book Soviet Space Dogs (FUEL Publishing).