Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs about the history of spaceflight at Vintage Space, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.
This month marked the 55th anniversary of the first living being launched into orbit. It wasn’t a simple fruit fly or bean sprout, but a stray dog from the streets of Moscow.
As the first space traveler, Laika was a hero of her time, extensively trained and outfitted in a custom-designed space suit. But even on those early missions, the Soviet Union was establishing a pattern in its space flights: missions were designed to stay one step ahead of the Americans, often at the cost of quality and safety—and sometimes fudged for good measure.
Preceding Laika’s flight on Sputnik 2 was the first Sputnik, the more famous one, which scored a significant psychological coup for the Soviet Union. The 184-pound beeping satellite shot fear into the hearts of Americans and began a decade of Soviet leadership in space that challenged the United States’ position as the world’s technological superpower. But Sputnik was an innocuous satellite, far simpler than the sophisticated payloads the Soviets had been developing. Speed had trumped sophistication in the quest to launch before the Americans.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev felt the power of Sputnik just like the Americans did. He was so pleased with the satellite’s success that the day after its launch—October 5, 1957—he met with the Soviet space program’s Chief Designer Sergei Korolev to plan the next launch. Khrushchev wanted another satellite on an astounding timetable: November 7 that year marked the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution and Khrushchev wanted another satellite to mark the occasion with something grand. So Korolev suggested they launch a dog.
The satellite eventually christened Sputnik 2 was a significant improvement over its predecessor. The first Sputnik was a rush job, simple and hastily made with the sole goal of beating the Americans into orbit. With that victory scored, Korolev drew from the more exciting technologies his team was developing. They had already experimented with canine launches, sending dogs on short suborbital hops to learn how living payloads would react to spaceflight. Korolev mated this knowledge with another familiar technology: the PS-1 type of satellite that had spawned the first Sputnik. The result was a 1,120-pound satellite with a rudimentary life support system and the same radio equipment and batteries that powered Sputnik.
Sputnik 2 was a remarkable technical achievement, particularly in light of its fast production schedule. It was also, importantly for Khrushchev, a powerful symbol on the November 7 celebrations. Laika’s fate wasn’t widely known at the time—reports variously said she’d died of oxygen deprivation, heat exhaustion, or had been euthanized—but it didn’t matter. Even in death she stood as a symbol of Soviet power in space. Khrushchev could point up to the two satellites orbiting the Earth as technological triumphs of the communist way of life, gloating that the Americans were still trying to catch up.
And catch up they did, though the first American satellite paled in comparison to the Sputniks. Explorer 1, which achieved orbit on February 1, 1958, weighed a relatively paltry 30 pounds.
Things evened out over the next few years as both the Soviet Union and the United States successfully launched satellites into orbit and towards the Moon. But a new race was gaining momentum—the race to put a man into orbit. Both nations were working on incredibly simplistic capsules in an attempt to beat the other, but the Soviets won. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once on April 12, 1961. The next cosmonaut launched four months later. Following the unwritten rule that each mission would advance Soviet space science somehow, Gherman Titov bettered Gagarin’s flight by completing nearly 18 orbits in 25 hours. The American missions that launched in the meantime did little to threaten the Soviet lead; Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom completed suborbital flights lasting less than 16 minutes each.
It was half a year before the Americans matched the Soviets with a manned orbital flight of their own; John Glenn’s three orbits aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962 began to even the score. It was the first time the Soviets felt a threat to their lead in space.
Korolev reacted by planning a dual launch. He knew having two spacecraft meet and join in space—technically a rendezvous and docking—was an integral part of a future mission to the Moon or the construction of an orbiting space station. It was also something NASA was planning to do with its second Gemini spacecraft (the Mercury spacecraft couldn’t change its orbit). So Korolev decided to beat the Americans to the goal of an orbital rendezvous.
The problem was that the Vostok spacecraft was no better equipped for the task than NASA’s Mercury spacecraft. So Korolev faked it with two cleverly timed launches. Lifting off 23 hours apart, the relative orbits of the spacecraft had them briefly pass within three miles of one another at a certain point in the three-day mission. The stunt fooled many American onlookers at the time; newspapers added to the illusion with headlines like “Soviet Space Feat Hints Midas Threat” and “Did Reds Rendezvous in Space.” But the real triumph was the missions’ durations. Vostok 3 spent a little less than four days in space while Vostok 4 came down in just under 3 days. NASA wouldn’t match that Soviet record until 1965.
A joint mission wasn’t the only first Korolev was working toward in the wake of Glenn’s orbital flight. On February 16, 1962, the Central Committee of the Communist Party had decided to launch a female cosmonaut. It was a clever propaganda move designed to promote the idea that the Soviet system valued its women equally to its men. It was also another first the Americans couldn’t achieve: NASA’s astronauts were pulled from the ranks of military test pilots, all of whom were male in the 1950s. An all-female cosmonaut class was selected and from the five finalists Valentina Tereshkova was chosen as the pilot for Vostok 6.
Tereshkova’s mission, which launched on June 16, 1963, was to be the last of the Vostok flights. The program’s cancellation was due in part to the details of NASA’s Gemini program reaching the Soviet Union. Not only would Gemini rendezvous with another in orbit, it would carry two astronauts. The Soviets were working on their own multi-manned Soyuz spacecraft, but it was still in the early developmental stages and wouldn’t fly before Gemini. So once again Korolev came up with a makeshift solution to beat the United States to the punch: a stripped-down canister for three cosmonauts packed like sardines.
The program was called Voskhod. Based on a modified Vostok spacecraft, it was created for the singular purpose of launching three men at once. But again the multi-manned Voskhod flight was less sophisticated than it seemed from the outside: it could only hold three cosmonauts without the safety measures of pressure suits and ejection seats. As the Soviets were wont to do they kept those details under wraps, though American intelligence knew the Voskhod flights were a stunt. Still, by cutting corners, Voskhod beat the Americans to a multi-manned flight by more than five months. Voskhod 1 launched three cosmonauts on October 12, 1964; NASA’s first Gemini mission carried two astronauts on March 23, 1965.
Midway through the decade the Soviets shifted their attention to the Soyuz spacecraft. But a deeper change in the country’s leadership forced spaceflight to take a backseat to missiles, giving the Americans a chance to take the lead in the race to the Moon. Soviet progress slowed while NASA’s Gemini program achieved stunning success, meeting all its goals with 10 manned missions in just 20 months.
By 1966, the scales were tipped decidedly in the Americans’ favor for the first time in the space race, a lead they maintained until reaching the Moon first in 1969. History shows the wisdom of NASA’s way. Beginning with Sputnik, the Soviets espoused a reactionary approach to spaceflight, each mission dreamed up one at a time with the goal of beating the Americans to an important first. The United States, meanwhile, took a much more measured approach. Each mission added to NASA’s growing understanding of how to operate and live in space, laying the necessary foundation for future lunar missions. As history proved, those missions changed space history forever—and it all began with a little dog in a big satellite.