The first animal in space. Also, the first animal to die in space.
There's a lot we don't know about Laika, and most of what we do know has to be put in context of the Soviet Union and the early days of the space race. The Soviets nabbed the first great triumph in the space race when they launched Sputnik into orbit in October 1957. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was overjoyed by the news and encouraged designers to build another satellite to be launched on November 7, 1957, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
This led to two significant problems. The first was that a request from the leader of the USSR wasn't a simple request, to be considered with other options. It meant "Hey, guys, launch the satellite on November 7th, or you spend the rest of your life in Siberia." The second problem was that Sputnik had taken about four years to build, and Khrushchev wanted the second spacecraft to launch in only a month. And because Khrushchev wanted a "space spectacular" -- something just as amazing and newsmaking -- the designers couldn't just send up a new satellite. They had to come up with something that would be another scientific and propaganda triumph.
The designers had always planned to send dogs aloft -- no one was even sure if the conditions in space were conducive to the survival of any life at all, so testing on animals was necessary to see if humans could travel to space. And they'd already sent a dozen dogs up on sub-orbital flights. But they'd planned to wait another year or so, get some more launches under their belts, and make sure they had all their necessary instrumentation ready before they sent any creatures into orbit. But Krushchev's deadline meant the engineers moved their dog deadline up as well.
So with just a month to design, build, and launch a new spacecraft, some of the designers' long-term goals had to be left behind. Specifically, there would be no way to get the dog launched into orbit back to Earth at all.
That's where Laika finally enters the story. She was an 11-pound Moscow stray, mongrel, about three years old. She was probably part husky and part terrier. Scientists preferred using stray dogs for testing because they figured that dogs that had been on their own in Moscow were probably already able to survive rough conditions, hunger, and extreme cold. She was given numerous nicknames during her training -- Kudryavka (Russian for "Little Curly"), Zhuchka ("Little Bug"), Limonchik ("Little Lemon") -- before they settled on the name Laika, which meant "Barker." After her launch, some Americans called her Muttnik or Curly, but Laika was the name used by almost everyone.
While life in a Soviet test facility was probably a lot nicer than living alone on the streets of Moscow, the testing regimen was still plenty difficult. Laika and the other dogs trained for Sputnik 2 (Albina and Mushka) were kept in very small cages to get them used to the tiny cabin space aboard the satellite, which caused them to stop urinating or defecating. They were also placed in centrifuges and in machines designed to simulate loud spacecraft noises, which caused some blood pressure problems. They were also trained to eat gelatinous food.
There isn't a lot of info about Laika, but it seems she was a well-liked animal by the staff. She was quieter and more pleasant than some of the other test animals and less likely to quarrel with other dogs. Prior to the launch, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, one of the scientists at the launch site, took Laika home with him to play with his children. He later wrote, "I wanted to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live."
Laika was placed in the satellite at Baikonur Cosmodrone three days before the launch, partly to get her acclimated to the spacecraft, partly to keep from having to do a lot of fiddly preparations too close to the launch time. Since it was so cold, she was kept warm through a hose connected to a heater, and a pair of assistants were required to keep a constant watch on her. Engineers had put in as much life-support equipment as they could, including an oxygen generator, a fan to keep Laika cool, and devices to absorb carbon dioxide and reduce the chance of oxygen poisoning, as well as enough food for seven days. She was also fitted with a bag to collect waste. The craft was very cramped -- she could stand, sit, or lie down, but there wasn't enough space for her to turn around. She was also fitted with instruments to monitor her movement and vital signs.
After the launch, her respiration and heart rate soared but settled back to a more normal level after she'd become more accustomed to weightlessness. However, some of the craft's components didn't jettison properly, tearing some of the thermal insulation away, which caused the cabin's temperature to rise to over 100 degrees. Early reports showed that she was under a great deal of stress, but she was eating her food, which was seen as a good sign. Unfortunately, after 5-7 hours, the instruments no longer recorded any life signs. Her body was destroyed when Sputnik 2 burned up on re-entry on April 14, 1958.
Knowing the dog would die in space, Soviet scientists had planned to euthanize her at some point by giving her poisoned food. Official Soviet reports tended to flip-flop on whether she'd been euthanized or had died from lack of oxygen after the spacecraft's batteries failed. It was eventually established that Laika had died from overheating.
Laika's death was not often remarked upon at the time, even in America -- most people were focused on the political ramifications of the event. There were some protests in the United Kingdom and at the UN Building in New York. After the Soviet Union fell, one of the project's scientists, Oleg Gazenko, said, "Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."
All future Soviet missions involving animals were designed to be recovered, and the only other dogs to die in space were two who were killed when the Korabl-Sputnik 3 craft disintegrated during re-entry in 1960.
There is a Laika monument, a statue of a dog standing on top of a rocket, at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training facility. NASA named a soil target for her during one of their Mars missions. Several bands have been named for her, including a British indie band and a Finnish group called Laika & The Cosmonauts, and several songs have been written about her. Cartoonist Nick Abadzis created a graphic novel called "Laika" in 2007 -- his story was a mix of fiction and nonfiction as he attempted to tell what her life might have been like as a stray in Moscow. If you can find it, it's quite worth reading.
Update: decoy hunches points us to "Storming the Cosmos" by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling, in which Laika plays an important role.
Nick Abadzis's graphic novel is highly recommended, even if it's partially fictional. While we're on the subject, his alternate endings for the book are excellent.