On August 19, 1960, the Soviet stray dogs Belka and Strelka won themselves worldwide fame and glory after successfully performing a 24-hour Earth orbit on the Vostok spacecraft and returning back on Earth safe and sound.
After the first Sputnik had been launched into orbit in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev demanded from Sergey Korolev, the head of the Soviet space program, another feat, just as epoch-making. The request resulted in Korolev’s decision to launch another Sputnik with a dog on it.
The first dog cosmonauts were chosen from a wide selection of the stray dogs the scientists collected from streets and backyards. They were deemed the most suitable candidates since they had already undergone various testing and their physiology and reactions were familiar to the scientists. Adding up to that, stray dogs were unassuming, easygoing and open to taming; years of life in the street was their strong point, as it had taught them to survive in extreme conditions.
The candidates had to also meet physical requirements to fit into the small cockpit -- namely to be no heavier than 13 pounds and 14 inches in height. As the dogs were undoubtedly meant to become instant celebrities and media figures, the scientists were also trying to look for pretty muzzles with a possible touch of wisdom.
The training field was set up in a stadium, in an old hotel, and all the training and the actual missions were strictly confidential, as most of the experiments were unsuccessful. The dogs, launched into space, kept dying from pressurization loop, parachute mechanism failure or faults in the life support system, but both scientists and authorities excused the deaths by saying the dogs died in the name of science.
On August 20, 1960, it was proudly announced that “the space craft performed a non-destructive landing, returning Belka and Strelka to Earth safe and sound.” As the mission was successful, the information about all the preparatory work was allowed to be published in the newspapers, which said that “the dogs passed all sorts of tests; they learned to spend significant amounts of time motionless in the cockpit; they were trained to withstand overloads and vibrations. The animals are no longer afraid of the buzzing, they know how to operate in their uniforms, allowing to monitor heart rate, brain impulses, blood pressure, and breathing and such properly.”
Several days afterward, Belka and Strelka’s flight was broadcast on television. The audience could clearly see how the dogs were doing somersaults in zero gravity. While Strelka was always stressed and on guard, Belka was enjoying herself, frolicking and barking. The scientists even regretted they hadn’t installed microphones, which would have made it an even better story. After the flight, Belka and Strelka were welcome guests in every part of the country, especially popular with children, as they were taken to kindergartens, schools and orphanages.
At press conferences, all journalists were anxious to touch and pat the dogs. They were warned, however, that like any star, the dogs were temperamental and could bite them.
After the flight Strelka gave birth twice, her puppies being just as popular as their mom. Every puppy stayed at the institute and was closely monitored. One of Strelka’s babies, shaggy Pushok, was given as a gift to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline. Belka and Strelka spent the rest of their lives at the institute and died of old age.
After Belka and Strelka, several more dogs were launched into space, the last one coming back successfully 18 days before Yury Gagarin’s flight.