MOSCOW — Russia remembered two unlikely national heroes yesterday — a pair of skinny street mutts who moved the Soviet Union into the lead of the space race when they became the first living creatures to circle the Earth and come back alive.
The Aug. 19, 1960, mission by Belka and Strelka was key in preparations for the flight of Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space about a year later.
It showcased the Soviet lead in space exploration and turned the two dogs into global celebrities. Celebrations of the mission’s 50th anniversary topped national newscasts yesterday.
By 1960, Soviet space engineers had designed a returnable spacecraft capable of carrying a human into orbit, but they needed to run an extensive program of animal tests first, and many of the dogs died during testing. Only strays were picked up for such flights — doctors believed they were able to adapt quicker to harsh conditions — and they were very small so they could fit into the tiny capsules.
Laika became the first dog to orbit Earth in a nonreturnable capsule but died of overheating after her 1957 launch. Two other dogs died in a July 1960 launch when their rocket exploded seconds after blastoff.