The story of Laika—the first pup launched into space—has been documented everywhere from Ars Technica to Arcade Fire songs. This decidedly tragic tale starts with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanting to press his country’s perceived space advantage over the United States after the USSR’s Sputnik had beaten US efforts into the heavens back in October 1957.
“We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans,” Khrushchev told famed rocket guru Sergei Korolev, according to cosmonaut Georgy Grechko. “But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution.”
That “something” would be a female dog named Laika. And Soviet space leaders had just one month to get this effort together. Picked off Moscow streets and sent into the lab then the skies, Laika’s contribution to space history would be largely symbolic. Her capsule contained a temperature-control system and some dog food, but the Soviets must’ve always viewed this as a one-way, suicide mission—no one had yet solved the problem of how to safely return a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere, after all. Within a couple of hours after launch, the thermal control system failed and the capsule overheated. Humanity’s first attempt to send a living creature into space ended, well, not great.