Sixty years ago, people around the world were enamored with Laika (Russian for “Barker”), a 2-year-old Moscow street dog, who became the first dog to orbit the Earth when Sputnik 2 launched on Nov. 3, 1957. It wasn’t until Laika was well on her way aboard Sputnik 2 that Russian officials disclosed the terrible truth: it was a one-way mission.
“Laika was quiet and charming,” wrote Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, who took the “cosmomutt,” as she was called by pundits, home to play with his children before her ill-fated trip. “I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.”
When people found out that sweet little Laika was doomed to die alone and scared, they were outraged.
“The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals averted complete telephone paralysis only when a quick-thinking operator urged all callers to ‘make your protest direct to the Soviet embassy,’” Time reported in November 1957.
In a desperate attempt at damage control, First Secretary Yuri Modin insisted that Russians loved dogs. “This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity,” he stated, according to Time.
Speaking of cruelty, it wasn’t easy for Laika even before the capsule was launched into space. Because of a technical problem, she had to sit in the cockpit for three days on the launch pad. As the temperature dropped, workers heated the capsule using a hose.
According to the official story at the time, Laika survived for a week in space before she was euthanized by a programmed injection. As terrible as that sounds, the end of her life was actually much worse.
At the 2002 World Space Congress, people involved in the project revealed what had really happened. Laika had access to food and water, but she was chained so she couldn’t turn around. Just a few hours after the capsule was launched, she died of overheating and stress.
Laika wasn’t the only dog who died on a Russian space mission. Of the 12 dogs that succeeded her, five died. Finally, in 1960, two dogs named Belka and Strelka made it safely to space and back again.
The last dogs sent to space were Verterok and Ugolyok, who spent 22 days in orbit in 1966. Ever since then, dogs have stayed where they belong – here on Earth.
This story was originally published on Care2.com.