July 22, 2016

The First Canine Cosmonauts


The First Canine Cosmonauts

On July 22, 1951, the first rocket containing living beings shot into space. The passengers rose 68.35 miles into space with barely a bark, parachuted to land in a pressurized capsule, and got a juicy, Soviet bone for being good puppies. They were Dezik and Tsygan, the world’s first dogmonauts.

Why dogs? A whole menagerie had been competing to be first in space – including rats, mice, fruit flies, turtles, and monkeys – but in the Soviet Union, dogs were the winners. After all, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can train a stray dog off the street to cope with the ravages of space flight.

Specifically, the scientists in charge of the project picked on puppies because they could handle both waiting and confined spaces. Plus, they were so darned cute in those little space suits.

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On top of that, it was usually lady dogs who were sent up because it was easier to provide for their sanitary needs (see all those wires and cords?). Plus, most of them were small, hardy strays and mutts. Can you imagine a pedigree poodle or Italian greyhound toughing it in space? Exactly.

These were dogs who were used to life on the streets, and all of a sudden they were facing life in a tight rocket with lots of cords and equipment and changing air pressure. The dogmonauts faced intensive training, just like the humans who came after them. They underwent multiple tests and practice sessions involving a depressurized cabin, space suits, weightlessness, and complex life support systems. By the end, they definitely earned their kibble.

Finally, the scientists and their canine friends were ready for the first launch. Dezik and Tsygan were the dogs chosen for the illustrious mission. They were placed in a detachable head portion of a V2 rocket and launched into the atmosphere. To get to the official border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, the dogs had to go up 100 km, or 62 miles. The rocket made it to an altitude of 110 km, or 68.35 miles – the limit of outer space. The head of the rocket then detached, and Dezik and Tsygan parachuted gently down to Earth’s surface, having become the first beings to achieve suborbital space flight.

It was one small step for these pups, one giant leap for dogkind.

Tsygan and Dezik in their doggy-friendly compartment. vilavi.ru

Aleksandr Seryapin, the medic who had the honor to open the door after the dogs landed, recalls the events of the day:

“The first flight turned out very successful: the dogs were alive. When we released them, a lot of cars pulled up, and Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov [the lead Soviet rocket engineer] was in one of them. When he saw the dogs – in my opinion, there wasn’t a happier person there. He grabbed them, ran around the cabin with them, poured them water, gave them sausages and sugar.”

The dogs emerged from their first flight unscathed – and even better, they got sausages out of the deal. But unfortunately, spaceflight is a risky business. Dezik made a second suborbital flight one week later with a dog named Lisa, but this time, the parachute didn’t open, and neither of the dogs survived.  

Tsygan, on the other hand, was adopted by Anatoly Blagonravov, a physicist who had been present at the first flight and fell for Tsygan’s charm. “Let the hero come and live with me,” he said. While a human cosmonaut may have opted for independence and further feats of heroism, Tsygan had no objections.

Over the next decade, the Soviet space program launched more than thirty suborbital flights. Not all of the dogmonauts involved survived, but the ones who did were rewarded with sausages and sugar, a permanent home with the scientists, and the status of Soviet hero – especially Laika, the first living being to orbit the Earth in 1957, and Belka and Strelka, who spent a full day in orbit in 1960 before safely returning to Earth.

The second half of the 20th century was marked by a worldwide fascination with Outer Space, especially as the dueling powers of the Cold War fought for supremacy – both on Earth and in the stars above. The animosity and diplomatic tensions of the Space Race were purely human rivalries, while many of the heroes on the front lines were brave animal explorers with no stake in international diplomacy. And key among them were the dogmonauts who followed in the pawprints of Dezik and Tsygan.

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