Decision to fly a dog on the second artificial satellite


Laika and her backups during final preparations for launch of the second artificial satellite, probably at Site 2 in Tyuratam.

Go ahead to Sputnik-2

With the launch of the first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957, and resulting world-wide fanfares at full blast, Korolev dismissed many of his staff at the OKB-1 design bureau for a long-overdue vacation. As remembered by Boris Chertok, one of Korolev's associates, in the aftermath of the first Sputnik the main business of the day for remaining employees at OKB-1 was drawing up lists for government awards and bragging to each other about upcoming bonuses. (261) This exuberance would not last, however.

Russian sources recite several versions of the story on a sudden decision to go ahead with Sputnik-2. According to one, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, hosted a big reception for leading rocket designers to celebrate Sputnik-1. Korolev was among those present. At the reception, Khrushchev apparently "made a suggestion" that another Sputnik be launched to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution celebrated on November 7.

According to Boris Chertok, Khrushchev telephoned key rocket industry officials, including Korolev, Keldysh and Rudnev and "hinted" that a new satellite would be needed on the eve of the November 7 celebrations. Korolev reportedly protested, justifiably concerned that rushing such a "holiday gift" might end up in a launch disaster. However Khrushchev reportedly insisted. (62, 261) Another veteran of the program, Arkady Ostashev, claimed that Korolev promised Khrushchev "to think about it." (262)

Khrushchev's son, Sergei, in his memoirs denied that his father ever pressured rocket scientists to coincide Laika's mission or any other space shot with holidays. He offered a different version of the story:

"My sense is that Father asked Sergei Pavlovich (Korolev) whether it would be possible to schedule another launch to brighten the holiday and Korolev quickly seized on the remark. He returned Father's call a few days later, saying that the launch would take place and that, for the first time ever, a living being would fly into space - a dog..." (87)

Chief Designer Council on Sputnik-2

Before Korolev had returned Khrushchev's call about a second satellite, he convened the Council of Chief Designer, an informal group comprising of key individuals in the rocket industry. Although Chertok was not present due to illness, in his memoirs he relied on recollections of Konstantin Bushuev, another Korolev's close associate who did attend the gathering.

In what may sound as a contradiction, Korolev opened the meeting with a proposal to orbit a dog, although he, reportedly, hoped that the council of chief designers would reject unrealistic deadline for the launch. To Korolev's surprise, the council members "embraced his idea for the immediate launch of a second satellite with a gambler's enthusiasm." (261) In the retrospect, it is possible to imagine how Korolev could view the second satellite as a stepping stone toward manned space flight, and, therefore, he could hardly wait to make it possible. Later, Yaroslav Golovanov, Korolev's biographer, quoted him as saying that the month between the launch of the first and the second Sputnik had been the happiest period of his life. (229)

Without wasting any time, the council apparently made several key decisions about the design of the second satellite. They agreed that the spacecraft would remain attached to the rocket, which inserted it into orbit. (Later, it would lead to speculations that the spacecraft failed to separate.) In reality, the decision to keep the satellite and the launcher as one vehicle, enabled the rocket's existing Tral (Dragnet) telemetry system to transmit data from the spacecraft. Just in time, the mission of Sputnik-1 had already demonstrated that the body of the rocket would remain in orbit for a reasonable period of time, despite its size and weight (which supposedly caused more extensive friction with the upper atmosphere). As its predecessor, Sputnik-2 would have no attitude control system.

As soon as the use of the power-hungry Tral telemetry system was decided, the limitations of existing batteries came to the forefront of the meeting. One energy-saving measure, which was proposed, would require a mechanism to switch off the telemetry system, as soon as the satellite went out of range of the Soviet ground control network. "That's easy," reportedly said Viktor I. Kuznetsov, an expert on flight control, "I'll just take three Pobeda (Victory) alarm clocks and convert them into a timer with a 15-minute work cycle, for every orbital period of 90 minutes."

"But the orbital period will be 88 or 89 minutes, not 90," Korolev objected. Kuznetsov replied that he could only make a 90-minute timer and conceded that resulting 15-minute transmission session would slightly drift eastward after each orbit, eventually taking it out of sight of the Soviet ground stations. Mstislav Keldysh and his colleague from the Academy of Science, who were present at the meeting debated the issue and ultimately agreed: "Bless the Americans! If they wanted to receive the telemetry data, then let them have it. The Japanese would be receiving it anyway since their ground monitoring equipment covers much of the USSR.

Last but not least, the council of chief designers tackled life-support aspects of the mission. Semen Alekseev, the developer of dog cabins for research rockets, naturally offered to "re-purpose" available hardware for the orbital flight. It just needed an addition of an automatic feeding mechanism for the dog to sustain an animal in flight that would last much longer than a typical ballistic flight on a rocket. Those present, suggested to save weight by designing a feeder for a single meal only, since the goal was just proving the possibility of eating in weightlessness. Council members also discussed a device allowing the dog to activate the feeder when it smelled the food.

Ultimately, the council of chief designers concluded that a seemingly impossible Khruschchev's request could be fulfilled after all, and Korolev set out to put his organization into high gear for another pioneering mission. As remembered by Korolev's associate Yevgeny Shabarov, just two days after arriving to a Black Sea resort, he received a telegram, which read: "Yevgeny Vasilievich, please report back to work immediately." To Shabarov's surprise, a plane ticket had already been waiting for him at the airport. A similar story apparently played out with many employees of Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau. (262)

Formal "go ahead"

On Oct. 9, 1957, the Pravda newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Soviet Communist Party, predicted that " transition to manned space flight, it would be necessary to study the influence of the conditions of space flight on live organisms. First of all, such studies had to be conducted on animals. As it was done onboard high-altitude rockets, the Soviet Union will launch a satellite carrying animals as passengers and detailed observations of their behavior and of ongoing physiological processes would be conducted..." Pravda obviously did not mention that first such mission was scheduled to blast off in less than a month. (248)

According to various Russian sources, on October 10 (52) or 12, 1957, the Soviet government issued an official decision to orbit the second artificial satellite on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution. Korolev's team had less than four weeks to build the spacecraft.

Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak;

Last update: November 3, 2017

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Sputnik-2 mockup

A full-scale mockup of the second Soviet artificial satellite, minus its rocket body. (Sputnik-2). Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak




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