On November 3, 1957, a tiny capsule rocketed into space. Inside was a diminutive, 14-pound, black and white dog named Laika. And when her spaceship pierced the Earth’s atmosphere, she became the first creature in history to make it to outer space. No small feat for a stray that only days before had been fighting for scraps on the streets of Moscow!
Laika’s unlikely journey was borne out of the race to prove that human spaceflight was possible. Just a month earlier, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union—Cold War nemesis of the United States—launched into orbit history’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. That’s when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev insisted that his scientists perform a second test—this time to determine if a living being could survive the journey to the stars.
The mission was too dangerous to risk a human life, so the Soviets decided to train a stray dog to be Russia’s first cosmonaut. Nine days before the scheduled launch, they chose Laika for her gentle disposition and natural beauty. If she was to make history, they reasoned, she would need to be photogenic.
Laika did make history. Monitors followed the sound of her tiny beating heart all the way into Earth’s orbit. But there was a problem: the Soviets had not worked out how to get Laika back. She perished, circling the earth, most likely from the profound heat created by the capsule’s firing rockets.
Laika’s journey sparked not one but two historic advances: the era of human space exploration, and the animal rights movement, particularly in scientific testing. She became a global folk hero. Her sacrifice inspired poems and novels. She was featured on stamps and coins, and memorialized in a Moscow statue. Her fame ensured that going forward efforts would be made to protect the lives of canine cosmonauts.
Sure enough, on August 19, 1960, two more Moscow strays, Belka and Strelka, became the first living creatures to make the round trip to space.
Laika the Soviet Space Dog will always be remembered as the first living being to boldly go where no one had gone before. Laika was a pioneer for humanity.
Sarah Towle is an award-winning digital storyteller of immersive tales for educational tourism. With her latest project for secondary school students—the History Hero BLAST—she puts the Story back in History, bringing a fictional flair to factual tales of inspirational figures from around the world and throughout time. A blog and future podcast, the HHBLAST welcomes the participation of published and aspiring authors, including young writers. Click here to find out more about how to bring the HHBLAST—and Sarah—to your school!
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and a team of men on a vital mission to explore the wild, unmapped West.
Lewis brought his dog along. According to journals kept by several of the explorers, the dog helped a lot. He retrieved animals that had been shot for food. He scared away grizzly bears, and a bull bison that charged into camp.
The old journal pages are often hard to read, and this led to a misunderstanding of the dog's name. People thought that he was called Scannon. Not until 1985 did a historian carefully examine every mention of the dog. He found that Lewis had actually named the dog Seaman. The dog was a Newfoundland, a breed often kept on ships. They are great swimmers, and could save people from drowning.
In the expedition's journals, Seaman was last mentioned in July, 1806, two months before the explorers returned from the West and reached the little town of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. After that, there is no word about the dog in letters or reports written by Lewis, Clark, or others.
The mystery of what happened to Seaman was solved in the year 2000, thanks to the work of historian James Holberg. He had found a book, written in 1814 by historian Timothy Alden, which told of a little museum in Virginia. Alden found a dog collar displayed there that William Clark had given to the museum. On the collar were these words: "The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America."
The collar was later destroyed by fire, but in his 1814 book Timothy Alden also wrote further details about Seaman. Historians report that after the expedition, Meriwether Lewis' life became one of failure and despair. In October 1809 he took his own life. Alden wrote that Seaman was there when Lewis was buried, and "refused to take every kind of food, which was offered to him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master's grave."
People who know Newfoundland dogs say that this could be true, because these dogs are fiercely loyal to their owners. Unless historians find some new evidence, that is how the life of this great dog hero ended.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States, departing in May 1804, from near St. Louis on the Mississippi River, making their way westward through the continental divide to the Pacific coast. Seaman was along on every bit of the round trip expedition of over seven thousand miles. However, like the explorers, he traveled many of those miles on a keel boat or canoe--up the Missouri and other rivers, downstream to the Pacific Ocean, and then the return journey to St. Louis in 1806.
Laurence Pringle has written a book about Seaman. This richly detailed account of the Lewis and Clark expedition includes its planning, its adventures and discoveries, and its aftermath. With intriguing sidebars, historical illustrations, journal excerpts, and original art, this account of what became known as the Corps of Discovery features the remarkable dog that was the expedition's most unusual member. For more information click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Did the Hero Dog Survive?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 29 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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