Eighteen astronauts and cosmonauts have died during spaceflight. But, perhaps, the most upsetting casualty of the Space Race was that of Laika the dog. Found wandering the streets of Moscow as a stray, weighing about 6kg and approximately three years old, Soviet scientists assumed that as a street animal she would have already learnt how to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger. These same people also gave her the nickname Limonchik (Little Lemon).
Humans have to earn our affection on an individual basis, it takes a lot of background to make us care about them. But with dogs, we already care, we innately know we love them. When a dog dies in a movie, you feel bad because you like dogs, even though you've never met the dog. We don't really keep that same idealistic image for adult humans, instead reserving judgment until we get to know them (unless you're holding prejudice). If an adult, someone who has freewill, dies in a story, you don't care unless the plot/character development gave you a reason to. When you meet the protagonist, you don't immediately hope they don't die. You have learn to to like them throughout the story, and if the writing makes you care about them, you will feel bad when they're killed. But with dogs you never want to see them get hurt, right from the start.
One of the scientists, Dr Vladimir Yazdovsky, took Laika home to play with his children. In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine, he wrote, 'Laika was quiet and charming... I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.' One of the technicians preparing the capsule placed Laika in the container and just before closing the hatch, kissed her nose to say goodbye, knowing that she would not survive the flight.
On November 3rd 1957 blast off was successful. She became the first animal to orbit the earth. But the dog had no understanding of what she had been sacrificed for. Instead she was only confused and terrified. Around seven hours into the flight, as the fourth circuit was made, she was painfully cooked to death as the capsule slowly overheated.
In the original plan, the Soviets had boasted that Laika would have all the comforts she needed to return home safely. But Premier Nikita Khrushchev viewed Laika’s journey as a piece of propaganda, and he wanted her flight timed to perfection. He needed Sputnik 2 to blast off on the 40th Anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution, and so ordered the scientists to rush the job so he could get the date right. Khrushchev wanted a bold story to unite the USSR. But instead he created a sad story that endures. In 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime another one of the scientists, Oleg Gazenko, expressed regret, 'The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.'