By Amy Shira Teitel
The year was 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, and it had been only days since President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was establishing missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force was on DEFCON-2. American and Soviet military forces were an order away from launching a nuclear attack.
But on Saturday, October 27, it wasn’t a military general or political leader who nearly upended that delicate world balance and set off World War III. It was the aurora borealis.
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.