The first animal sent to space was a dog, named Laika. The abandoned dog was discovered on the streets of Moscow by the Soviet space programme officials and was selected for the mission.
The mission was designed to analyse the feasibility of a manned space mission.
The Russian space scientists tasted their first big success with the successful launch of the first artificial satellite, christened Sputnik 1. In the wake of its success, the Soviets geared up for an even more ambitious mission, to send a living being into space.
The scientists had chosen Laika because they believed that the mutt had already endured extreme condition when she was left all alone on the Moscow streets and thus, was better suited for this mission. To prepare her for the mission, Laika was confined inside a tiny cage, roughly the same size as Sputnik 2. She also underwent training inside a centrifuge which replicated the motion of the rocket.
Just before the mission, one of the researchers of the Soviet space programme carried her off to his home and let her mingle with his children. It was understood that Laika will not return from her mission and she was allowed to enjoy the last few hours of her life.
Laika was sent into space on November 3, 1957, whereby Sputnik 2 became the first mission to carry a living being to space. Sputnik 2 included a fan to ensure that the satellite did not overheat as well as an oxygen producing module. Once the satellite had settled into the orbit, its thermal control activation failed, whereby overheating ended the life of Laika within 7 hours of the launch.
The Soviet scientist tried to cover up the fiasco by claiming that Laika had been euthanised once her oxygen ran out. However, the actual details of her horrific fate were revealed in 2002. One of the scientists who was involved with the mission stated that
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 the mission to justify the death of the dog.
Sputnik 2 laid the foundation for the first successful manned space mission in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin stepped into the Earth’s orbit.