Opinion: Laika the dog and Albert the monkey are a stark reminder about responsibilities around ethical research with animals

In the 1940s and 1950s, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was starting to heat up. Both nations were building rockets and having success with suborbital flights. Every milestone such as orbital flights, first person in space and first person on the moon was a competition. The game was politically driven and fodder for the media who captured the imaginations of a receptive and in some cases malleable public. The space race ran at a relentless pace and given how basic and dangerous some of the technology was at the time, experimentation and engineering was needed to get ahead. This is where animals came in. 

When we talk about animals in space we often think about dogs and monkeys. However, in 1947, the first animals rocketed into space by the Americans were fruit flies. Initial flights were used to test the effects of radiation on living tissue at high altitude. The fruit flies were actually recovered alive after their capsule was successfully ejected and a parachute deployed.

Following this, the US made numerous attempts at sending monkeys to extremely high altitudes. The first was Albert II after the failure of the original Albert’s mission on ascension. Albert II reached an altitude of 83 miles before dying on impact after the parachute on his pod failed. At the time, the death rate among monkeys on missions was near two-thirds. To increase success rates and the monkeys’ ability to tolerate stress, they were often placed under anaesthesia during launch or for the complete duration of the flight. 

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The story of Ham, a chimpanzee launched into space in 1961, as part of the US space program's Project Mercury

Monkeys were the Americans' animal of choice when it came to space exploration since they are a good substitute for a human. So why did the Soviets use dogs as their test subjects? Well, after testing with mice, rats, flies and even a tortoise, they settled on dogs. The Soviets felt that dogs could endure long periods of inactivity better than other animals. In addition, it was a lot easier to abduct stray dogs from the streets of Moscow than it was to attain monkeys. Dogs also drew international attention as the general public could emotionally connect more with a dog than a fruit fly or mouse. They even had names and would feature on radio broadcasts before a big flight. Reinforcing this decision was the pioneering work of Ivan Pavlov (Pavlov's dogs) into canine physiology.

On October 4th 1957, the Soviet space program launched the first satellite into orbital flight, a colossal achievement and a black eye for the Americans. Not satisfied with this, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to set the bar higher with what he termed a "Space Spectacular" and wanted to launch the first animal into orbit. This scientific team were given just over a month to design, test and engineer a new pressurised capsule that could fit a living organism. They had already been working with a number of dogs who would now become the focal point of the new mission.

Plucked from the streets of Moscow in 1957 as a 3-year-old, Laika became the first animal to orbit the earth. Since then, she has been a stalwart of science and pop culture being featured in children's books and movies. However, she is also a stark reminder about the responsibility of humans to conduct ethical research with animals. 

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What happened to Laika in space?

In total, three dogs were trained for the mission: Laika the female husky-spitz mix weighting around 5kg, a backup dog and a control. All three dogs were female because, unlike their male counterparts, they did not need to lift their legs to urinate and would require less room in a capsule. 

Weeks before the planned launch, training began with the dogs. Kept in progressively smaller cages, the dogs were fed a nutritional gel. To monitor their heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rates, the dogs were surgically fitted with transmitters. To replicate the flight conditions and g-forces, they were spun in a large centrifuge to assess their reactions. Moreover, a device was attached to the dogs to collect their faeces. With this, the dogs stopped defecating and were then given laxatives. Eventually the dogs' performance improved, but their condition deteriorated. After weeks of testing, one of the scientists, Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika to his home to play with his children, later stating that he wanted to do something nice for the dog.

According to NASA, Laika was placed in her capsule three days before the flight. A heater was connected to keep her warm and she was under 24-hour surveillance. In her capsule, there was a carbon dioxide adsorbing device in addition to an oxygen generator so that the air conditions remained stable. There was also an automatic fan that was used to maintain the temperature around 15°C. She was chained to prevent her turning around or moving. 

"Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika to his home to play with his children, later stating that he wanted to do something nice for the dog" Photo: Getty Images

Due to the rushed job and the lack of technology at the time, successfully returning a vessel from orbit was not possible so Laika was being sent on a suicide mission. On November 3rd, four days ahead of schedule, Sputnik 2 with Laika onboard was launched.

During the launch, Laika’s heart rate jumped to three times its normal resting level. In space, it took considerably longer for her pulse to decrease when compared to the centrifuge testing data. Given this, the dog was under considerable stress. To give you a sense of the anxiety, after three hours of weightlessness, Laika’s heartrate was 102 beats per minute. Adding to the strain was the fact that the capsule’s thermal insulation came loose in transit. Unprotected from the sun’s rays, the temperature inside the capsule rose to 40°C. After five hours and having orbited the earth nine times, no more signals were received from Laika’s satellite. Stress and over-heating had caused her to pass away. 

The mission was a success and a failure. Yes, the Soviets were the first to send a living creature into orbit, but that same creature died a painful death soon after launch. For days, it was broadcast on Soviet radio that the dog was still alive and doing well. It was then reported that Laika had survived for seven days and had a painless death due to oxygen deprivation. Official documents recorded that the dog passed away after ingesting poison that was intentionally placed in her gelatine-based food to prevent a painful death upon re-entry. 

The ethics of animal testing will always be a controversial topic, but advances would not have been achieved without such testing

Without an appropriate retrieval strategy and after orbiting the earth 2,570 times, Sputnik II re-entered the earth’s upper atmosphere in 1958 and disintegrated with Laika's remains onboard. Her flight was the inception of many animal testing debates as Laika was knowingly sacrificed to advance science. Even though awareness of animal ethics was not at the same levels it is today, numerous protests were held around the world including a march outside the United Nations in New York.

With this background, Laika is a scientific icon with a dual identity. She helped pave the way for human space flight, while also sparking important questions around animal testing. The ethics of animal testing will always be a controversial topic but advances in medicine, disease control, surgical methods and vaccination would not have been achieved without such testing. There is a responsibility on scientists to treat animals in the most respectful manner possible and Laika’s story remains a cautionary and illustrative tale about the sacrifice’s animals pay to advance science. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ