Fifty-five years ago (1961) Yuri Gagarin, a Russian pilot became the first human to venture into outer space. Strapped into the Vostok space capsule, he called out the now famous “Poyekhali” (Let’s go!) before he lifted off. Although Gagarin was the first human to make the journey around our planet, he was not the first Earth-born creature to do so. That distinction goes to a dog.
On November 3rd, 1957, Laika, an 11-pound mixed-breed, was launched into space and took her involuntary place in history as the first animal (human or otherwise) to orbit planet Earth.
Laika was pulled from the streets of Moscow, along with dozens of other strays, to serve in a Soviet space program. The purpose of the program was to determine whether humans would survive high altitude flight. The exact number of dogs ‘recruited’ is uncertain. The launches, during the 1950s and 1960s, amounted to 57 canine slots though some of the dogs completed multiple missions.
After being plucked from the streets, the dogs endured rigorous training. They were confined to increasingly smaller boxes. Some confinement lasted upward of three weeks. The dogs learned to stand for long periods of time wearing specialized suits. They rode in rocket sleds to simulate launch. And, like human pilots, the dogs rode centrifuges to adapt to high g-forces. Unlike humans, the dogs didn’t have to perform vital tasks during their missions. They just had to survive.
During high positive g-forces, blood drains away from the brain. This can cause a condition called G-LOC. (G-Induced loss of consciousness.) Human pilots wear g-suits and practice Anti-G Straining Maneuvers (muscle contractions and breathing) to force blood to their brains. They also have to contend with the change in weight. When we stand on a scale, the number we see is our mass acted upon by the Earth’s 1 g. A person weighing 180 lbs at 1 g would weigh 360 lbs at 2 g. And so on.
High G-Forces in Fiction.
Obviously the kinds of speed required to travel the long distances in space would exert some decent g-forces. In science fiction there are two approaches for dealing with this challenge:
1) Artificial gravity is somehow generated and the occupants of a spacecraft are minimally affected by sudden changes in speed and/or direction. Or,
2) Gravity is a force to be reckoned with.
The Expanse series, written by the James S. A. Corey team, takes the second approach. The series’ characters survive high-g’s using crash couches, and a cocktail of blood-pumping drugs. Have a look at this clip from the SyFy series. (If you think this snippet is good, go read the books. Now!)
Back to the Dogs
Dogs, as far as we know, are no longer subjected to the physical and emotional stresses of space travel. Not real dogs. And not real space travel. But in story world … meet Otto.
Otto is my fictional German Shepherd Dog. He’s a veteran war dog who’s been deployed in a space program alongside his human Marine. In my stories, I didn’t want to invent a vague device which creates artificial gravity so I had a few problem to solve.
Humans fare better during high-G burns when the force is perpendicular to the spine–the horizontal axis. Forward acceleration is easier on our retinas, for one thing. (Eyeballs in versus eyeballs out.) This is why astronauts recline during launch, and why you might read about gimbaled acceleration couches in some science fiction, including mine.
But how to engineer an acceleration couch to suit canine anatomy? Stomach to couch seemed the safest alignment, but I couldn’t imagine a harnessing system that wouldn’t crush Otto’s legs. Inspired by the ‘gee bath’ in the Niven/Pournelle novel, THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, I gave Otto a kennel equipped with a gel-filled bladder. I also placed it on a gimbal to maintain the stomach-down position. I wondered how other writers had solved this problem, but I couldn’t recall reading any sci-fi novels which depicted Earth-born companion animals in high g-force scenarios.
I queried Winchell Chung, creator of Atomic Rockets, to see if he could think of any examples. He broadcast my question to his well-read Rocketpunk community. To my surprise, except for Snowy the cartoon dog, the community was equally stumped.
(Is Otto blazing the trail??)
The Rocketpunk community noodled over my scenario for a bit. The bladder-filled kennel seemed, indeed, an adequately believable solution. One contributor suggested I fill the bladder after Otto was positioned. I think that’s a great idea.
Back to the Real Dog Heroes
The Soviet space dogs withstood their missions under grueling conditions. Most of the dogs were returned safely to Earth. Several were adopted and even had puppies. Sadly, due to technical failures, some of the dogs’ missions ended in accidental fatalities.
There was one exception.
Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth, was deliberately sent on a one-way trip. The Soviet scientists had claimed that her oxygen ran out but, in 2002, the truth was revealed. Laika died during her fourth orbit from overheating, as they’d known she would. One of the scientists said he still felt regret. “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of a dog.”
A Toast to Space Dogs
Jane Kurtz, aka Thirsty Jane, my friend and fellow dog lover, has created a cocktail to honor Laika and the other space dog heroes. The cocktail, now featured on her blog, is fittingly named the the Space Dog.
To Laika, I say, “Salute,”
and to Otto, “Let’s go!”