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Strelka and Belka: The Canine Space Pioneers

At A Glance

If you thought humans were the first to make that jaunt into Space, think again! The route to the stars was, in fact, paved by dogs and monkeys.

And, while Strelka and Belka were not the first dogs to be blasted into Space (that credit goes to Laika), they were the first to make it back alive.

Recruited for a Russian space program, these former stray dogs became famous after surviving the long and arduous trip, emerging from the capsule looking none the worse for wear.

Last Updated on: January 3, 2023




The world stood witness as two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, pulled out all the stops to reign in the space exploration era in the 1960s, also called the ‘Space Race.’

But before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space via Vostok I on April 12, 1961, space programs had already sent animals into orbit. Their mission – to explore the possibility of human space travel.

Thanks to these animal heroes, humans could blast into space successfully, save for a few unfortunate mishaps. It is also worth mentioning as a tribute that Laika was the first dog sent into orbit via the Sputnik 2 space capsule in 1957. She was expected to survive for at least a week, with enough food and water to see her through. Unfortunately, Laika survived for only 7 hours before panic and exhaustion from the extreme heat took a toll on her.

These missions, some of which were failures, used animals, mainly dogs and monkeys, tested the chances of survival in Space and contributed significantly to the advancement of Space exploration.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that their successful Space voyage and safe return were the stepping stones for human space exploration.

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actual image of Strelka and Belka Image : BBC

Space Explorers Of A Different Kind

The first cosmonauts were actually four-legged. Right from the early days of the Soviet Union’s space program and long before Laika became a national hero, many others from her species had already been sent on voyages to what was considered the inky unknowns.

However, those first flights were sub-orbital, meaning the dogs were sent out of the atmosphere and then brought back to Earth. And most of them survived. But why dogs?

The Russians preferred dogs because they were easy to train and were readily available. While most dogs recruited to the Soviet Space program were strays, some were donated. And all of them were female.

But it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. The dogs had to undergo extensive medical tests and training to get acclimatized to being strapped into space suits and living in a capsule.

And within three years of Laika’s disastrous voyage, the Soviets, or rather their dogs, again made history. On August 19, 1960, two Russian female mongrels Belka and Strelka, were launched into orbit aboard the satellite Korabl-Sputnik 2.

But they weren’t the only voyagers. Accompanying these mongrels were a pair of rats, 42 mice, a rabbit, and fruit flies. And some plants and fungi too!

Heart-Stopping, Zero-Gravity Moment

Vix Southgate, a writer and illustrator of children’s books on the space program says, “The launch went well; all the medical data coming back from their spacesuits was fine and normal.” “But, by the time they got into orbit, neither of them was moving”, continues the author, currently writing a book on the pair’s pawsome adventure.

Sometime during the 4th orbit, Belka began throwing up and this jolted both dogs awake. Videos recorded on board the satellite show the dogs barking and moving around, and medical data confirms they were calm and relaxed throughout.

Mutt Stars On Earth And Beyond

The dogs spent a day in Space, making a total of 17 orbits before returning to Earth unharmed and happy.

The successful four-legged space explorers became instant celebrities, appearing in newspapers, magazines, and TV shows. Their fame spread globally and made an impact on global pop culture. Belka and Strelka were the toast of the world, and their images made their way to postcards, stamps, arts, films, books, and more.

It isn’t every day that canines make history with out-of-the-world escapades.

The White House Connection

The mongrel’s strays-to-stars story didn’t end with their voyage to space. Instead, it only got more interesting. In June of 1961, US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union Premier Nikita Kruschev held a joint summit in Vienna two months after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. It was, by all accounts, a tense meeting between the two space race rivals.

During the formal dinner, US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy casually asked the Russian Premier about the space dogs. They chatted about the celebrity canines, and the Russian leader shared that Strelka had borne puppies.

“You must send one of those puppies to me”, the first lady responded, according to Andrew Hager, a historian in residence at the Presidential Pet Museum.

And to the surprise of the President and Lady Kennedy, a few weeks later, one of the puppies showed up at the White House, with a little Russian passport in tow. Christened Pushinka (Russian for ‘fluffy’), it was first checked by the FBI for possible surveillance bugs. After the FBI cleared her, Pushinka took up residence at the White House.

Then a toddler, Caroline Kennedy later shared an anecdote in a BBC report about how her dad, the President, didn’t know about Pushinka coming as a gift from the Russian leader. She said her dad was surprised with the dog’s arrival from Russia and that it was only made possible because of the First Lady’s request and Kruschev’s gracious response.

Pushinka settled quickly in the White House and became a part of the first family. She would climb up little Caroline’s playhouse and slide down playfully. She also made friends with another White House dog Charlie, and the couple went on to have a litter of pups named Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker.

According to the White House History website, two of the pups were given away to some American kids who had written letters to the White House requesting to have a puppy. Others were given away to family friends.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Pushinka was given away to one of the White House gardeners and went on to have another litter. Sadly little is known about her or her descendants after that but there is a high possibility that Strelka’s offspring still reside on US soil.

A Symbol of Diplomacy

Many historians view Strelka’s Pushinka as a symbol of diplomacy. The pup played a role in tempering Russia and US relations, possibly even preventing World War Three in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. Despite the tense rivalry between the two superpowers, Pushinka as the bond cemented cordial ties between Kennedy and Kruschev.

In one of his letters to Kruschev, Kennedy even mentioned his appreciation for Pushinka. He further said that her voyage from Russia to the US may not have been as dramatic as her mother’s voyage from earth to space and back, but like her iconic mother, she stood the long trip well.

It was, in a way, a subtle acknowledgement that the Russian space program was a success.

Canine Icons of Survival and Success

Strelka and Belka’s cooperation and grit made them pioneers and paved the way for humans to explore Space. These two, along with the other animals recruited as part of experiments, were the frontrunners of the Space Exploration program in both countries, leading the way for cosmonauts and astronauts.

Their legacy of survival and success in space lives on. A testament that if homeless dogs like Strelka and Belka can go from the street to space, anything is possible!

 

Paul Andrews
https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-andrews-172490189/

A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.