10 Amazing (and Heartbreaking) Stories of the Soviet Space Dogs

Dezik, Tsygan, and Lisa

It’s important to remember that in the 1950s, neither the Soviets nor the U.S. spaceflight teams knew if life even could survive in space, nor did they know for sure that firing something into orbit, let alone it coming back safely, was possible.

Bolik and ZIB

All the dogs used by the Soviets were strays, usually picked off the streets of Moscow and kept in a compound, where they were trained and prepared. For every dog that took part in a mission, there were countless others that either died during training, escaped, were used as backups for Earth-based control groups during missions, or simply weren’t up to scratch.

Laika

On November 3, 1957, the first celebrated achievement on either side occurred when the Sputnik 2 Soviet spacecraft was fired into space. It was planned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so pressure was high, and deadlines were short…and on board the craft was poor little Laika.

Bars and Lisichka

Riding high on the success of the Laika mission (from a technical perspective), the Soviet spaceflight team was still remorseful over the dog’s fate. No other mission before it was a suicide mission like Laika’s. They made improvements to the capsule, making it capable of returning from orbit, thus ensuring the same thing never happened again.

Belka and Strelka

Three years later, the Soviet spaceflight team was scurrying around the streets of Moscow once again, looking for new candidates for its next mission. This time the hope was to send living organisms into orbit and have them come back alive.

Pchelka and Mushka

During the space race, advancements, targets, and technology were kept secret from the public on both sides to keep their enemies from gaining the upper hand or profiting from their hard work. This was evidenced in the Pchelka (“Little Bee”) and Mushka (“Little Fly”) mission, which launched in December 1960. It was the first mission for Pchelka, but Mushka had played an important role in Laika’s flight three years earlier, acting as her control group on Earth.

Shutka and Kometka

The very next flight was another failure. Launched on December 22, 1960, the dogs Shutka and Kometka (“Joke” and “Little Comet”), accompanied by mice, were scheduled to complete an orbital flight but only got as high as 133 miles before the upper stage rocket failed. Two ejection seats were fitted in the event of a disaster, but they were unable to deploy them, trapping the two dogs inside. The crew attempted to self-destruct the capsule, but this also failed to work, so they rushed to the craft.

Chernushka

To double up on research, the trend had been for the Soviets to use two dogs in missions, but with technology and understanding improving, they switched just one dog: a subtle hint that their intentions and future plans were changing. Behind the scenes, officials began setting their eyes on the first human spaceflight, but further tests were required.

Zvezdochka

The final test flight before Yuri Gagarin’s planned mission was one of the most important tests the Soviet team had yet undertaken. A failure here would result in a launch delay or disaster for Gagarin. After the Chernushka mission, one final success was required for the spaceflight team to be satisfied everything was safe enough for Gagarin.

Veterok and Ugolyok

For many, Gagarin’s flight marked the end of the space race. The Soviets had roundly beaten the Americans at every major hurdle along the way. But over in the USA, JFK swiftly changed the goalposts, publicly setting his country’s sights on the moon. Not to be outdone in this propaganda war, the new race began, but this one would require more time in space than any of the Soviet’s previous tests.