On the evening of November 3, 1957, barely a month after the Soviet Union sent humanity’s first artificial satellite into orbit, a rocket lifted off from a secret site in Kazakhstan, carrying its second. The launch of Sputnik 2 was timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, and the craft itself was an appropriately showy statement of Communist know-how—six times heavier than Sputnik 1, designed to fly nearly twice as high, and, most impressive of all, containing a live passenger. A week before the mission began, Moscow Radio had broadcast an interview with the cosmonaut in question, described as “a small, shaggy dog.”
Laika was far from the first dog to ride aboard a Russian rocket. Six years earlier, a pair of dogs named Dezik and Tsygan had reached the cusp of outer space, and since then more than two dozen others had followed. In each case, the Soviets had chosen their test subjects from among Moscow’s strays, on the theory that surviving on the lean streets of the capital was good preparation for the rigors of spaceflight. The dogs had to be small, but not too small, and they had to have brightly colored coats, so that they would show up on film. They also had to be female, to simplify the design of their suits.
Sensing a P.R. opportunity, the Soviets paraded other rocket dogs before the press, allowing them to be photographed in their little space outfits. “These Fellows Are Scientists,” a caption in the Detroit Free Press read.