20 August 1960: Russia’s ‘space dogs’ recovered alive

On this day in 1960, Russian mongrels Belka and Strelka became the first dogs to be recovered alive after having been shot into space.

The race to get a man into space saw all manner of beings blasted into the atmosphere before it was deemed safe for humans to have a go. 

Most famously, there was Laika. Things didn't go terribly well for her. Laika was shot into orbit aboard Sputnik 2 on 3 November, 1957, becoming in the process the first animal (that we know of) in space. It was a one-way mission. Sputnik 2 wasn't designed to be recoverable, and the Moscow stray was never intended to return.

Two more dogs are known to have given their lives. Bars and Lisichka were scheduled to orbit, but their Vostock rocket exploded shortly after takeoff. There were at least five more doggy deaths, but, the Soviet Union being what it was, we're unlikely to know for sure. It was not until August 1960 that an animal was successfully recovered from orbit.

Two mongrels, Belka and Strelka, along with a nameless rabbit, 40 mice, a couple of rats and some flies, were shot into orbit aboard Sputnik 5 on 19 August. They spent a day circling the Earth, having their vital signs monitored, and returned successfully on the 20th.

Strelka went on to give birth to six puppies. One – Pushinka – was given to US president John F Kennedy's daughter by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Before she was allowed to play with it, it had to be thoroughly prodded and screened by White House spooks to make sure there was nothing of the KGB about her. She went on to have puppies of her own.

After their deaths, Belka and Strelka's bodies were preserved, and are to this day on display in Moscow's Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts.

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