As the American presidential election reaches its gruesome end, it’s good to have something to take one’s mind off politics. So, it was with great pleasure that I read Olesya Turkina’s book ‘Soviet Space Dogs’. This tells the story of the canines who participated in the Soviet space program, from Desik and Tsygan, who travelled to a height of 100 kilometres on a R-1V rocket in July 1951, through to Ugolyok and Veterok, who spent 22 days in space in February and March 1966.
The main heroes of the book are Laika, Belka, and Strelka. Laika was the first animal to reach orbit. She was blasted into space on 3 November 1957 on what was always going to be a one-way mission, since there was no plan for re-entry. As Soviet Space Dogs reveals, the scientists responsible for her flight knew that the rocket’s heating system was malfunctioning, but went ahead with the launch anyway. As a result, Laika died after just a few hours. The Soviets were well aware of this, but having trumpeted the flight to the international press, were unable to admit it. Pretending that all was well, they provided fabricated updates on Laika’s supposed condition for several days before finally admitting that she had died. The full truth only came out in 2002.
Belka and Strelka had a happier ending. On 19 August 1960, they flew into space, and spent a day in orbit before returning successfully to Earth. They thereby became the first living things to travel into orbit and come back again. The pair became media superstars, and Strelka later gave birth to a litter of six puppies.
The space dogs were a gift to advertisers worldwide. Soviet and foreign manufacturers used the dogs’ images to adorn postcards, cigarette packets, toys, books, commemorative plates, and other objects. As much as the dogs’ stories, what makes Soviet Space Dogs a great buy is the 230 mainly colour photographs showing these items.