The 60th Anniversary of Belka and Strelka’s Flight

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On this day 60 years ago, the dogs Belka and Strelka became the first living beings to perform an orbital flight and safely return home. In this article, we’d like to commemorate these remarkable animals and reveal interesting facts about their journey into space.

You can also check out our video with some rare footage of the space dogs. To watch the video, click here.

The story behind the flight

By the end of the 1950s, the USSR was already prepared to send the first human into space. However, Soviet scientists needed confidence that a living being can survive such a flight. For this reason, it was decided that man’s best friends – dogs will go first and pave the way for human space exploration.

In 1957, by the direction of the USSR’s lead spacecraft designer Sergei Korolev, scientists picked out 12 stray dogs and started training them for the future flights. The intensive training sessions took several months and included teaching the dogs to live in confined spaces, endure extreme acceleration and eat jelly-like food delivered by an automatic dispenser. During the process, the training specialists developed close relationships with the dogs and got to know them very well.

Among those who performed the best in training were Belka (“Whitey”) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”) – female dogs of 2,5 years old. They were chosen to perform a 1-day flight around the Earth on the Sputnik-5 spacecraft.

Canine cosmonauts

On August 19, 1960, Sputnik-5, with two dogs on board, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. During the launch, the dogs’ pulse and breathing rates went up, but when the spacecraft reached the Earth’s orbit, Belka and Strelka slowly calmed down. The condition of the canine cosmonauts was closely monitored and analyzed by special devices that measured blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, and many other parameters. This was done to protect the dogs and learn how the stresses of space flight would affect humans. The spacecraft was also equipped with a TV camera that sent the dogs' images back to Earth.

By the way, Belka and Strelka were not alone in their capsule. Sputnik-5 also carried mice, insects, plants, seeds, fungi, and microbe cultures.

All in all, the flight went pretty well. After the stress of the launch, the dogs were calm most of the time and quite enjoyed their meals. Exposure to weightlessness also didn’t bother them much, according to the monitoring systems. There was only one disturbing moment (after the ship orbited the Earth the fourth time) when Belka suddenly became very anxious and started barking – she was definitely feeling sick for some unknown reason. Because of this accident, scientists decided to limit the flight of Yuri Gagarin – the first human in space – to only one orbital circuit around the Earth.

After the flight

On August 20, 1960, Sputnik-5 successfully landed after completing 17 orbits around the Earth. Belka and Strelka spent more than 25 hours in space and covered a distance of 700 thousand kilometers. Upon the landing, the dogs felt quite good; the medical tests also didn’t show any abnormalities. Thus, Belka and Strelka became the first living creatures to survive an orbital flight.

Several months after the flight, Strelka gave birth to 6 healthy puppies. One of them, called Pushinka (“Fluffy”), was given as a gift to the US president John Kennedy. After arriving in the US, Pushinka settled in the White House and soon had puppies with a Welsh terrier Charlie who also lived with the Kennedy family. These puppies were jokingly nicknamed “pupniks” as a reference to their Soviet mother.

Belka and Strelka lived the rest of their lives on the territory of one of the Soviet institutes. People all over the world will always remember their heroic flight that made an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about space and paved us the way to the stars.