Three Days of the Sputnik; or, “Radio-Moscow admits that the dog revolving around the earth in the satellite will never return”: Laika, Sputnik 2 and the daily press of Québec, part 1

The first official portrait of Laika to be released by the Soviet authorities. This photograph was originally published in the Moscow daily Pravda. Anon., “More Sputnik Dogs Due Before Humans Go Up.” The Evening Star, 13 November 1957, 6.

It is with some trepidation that yours truly approaches this week’s topic, my reading friend. I do indeed feel a certain discomfort at the idea of ​​broaching a subject linked to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) when the successor country of that dangerous dictatorship, another dangerous dictatorship, Putinian Russia, is pursuing a unjustified and unjustifiable war against Ukraine. Khay zhyve, vil’na Ukraina!

Yours truly would like to discuss an aspect of the Soviet-American space race this week, a crucial piece of Cold War history (Hello, EG, EP and VW!). More specifically, I would like to address that aspect through articles aimed at the major segment of the population of what could be described as a peripheral Western society.

Specifically, this edition of our amaazing blog / bulletin / thingee will look at how French-language daily newspapers in Montréal, Québec, and Québec, Québec, handled the launch of Sputnik 2 and Laika, the first living being other than a microorganism to be placed into orbit around our planet.

In 1957, Québec was an industrialised if very deeply conservative society ruled by an authoritarian (autocratic??) and autonomist / nationalist premier, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, an individual who was no fan of unionism, secularism, progressivism, modernism, liberalism, etc. The Roman Catholic Church, itself no fan of liberalism, modernism, progressivism, secularism, etc., controlled the health, education and welfare systems which provided services to the French speaking majority (about 82 %) of Québec’s population. Duplessis’s reign (1936-39 and 1944-59), intolerant of dissent and increasingly marred with patronage, as well as favouritism and populism, a pair of isms that Duplessis seemingly liked, not to mention corruption, had often been described as “la Grande noirceur,” in English the Great Darkness.

Duplessis, if you really need to know, was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018, but back to the topic at hand.

And yes, you got me. The photograph at the beginning of this article did not actually come from the 13 November 1957 issue of a daily newspaper published in Washington, District of Columbia, The Evening Star. Nay. It came from the February 1958 issue of the American monthly magazine Astronautics, more specifically from an article entitled “Life in Sputnik” by a Soviet biologist, a certain P. Isakov. The photograph was / is on page 38 if you do not believe me. I chose to use it because, well, it looked better. What would not I do for you, my reading friend?

The sad story of Sputnik 2, or Prosteyshiy Sputnik 2 (Simplest Satellite 2), began shortly after the launch of Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957. Realising how much the launch of that first artificial satellite had increased the reputation of the USSR and of communism, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev ordered engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev to launch a second satellite before the ceremonies surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which, let us recall, had begun on 7 November 1917. That launch, hammered the first secretary of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, would demonstrate once again the superiority of Soviet technology and therefore of its political regime.

Korolev was flabbergasted but failure was not an option.

That Khrushchevian diktat was seemingly officialised on 12 October.

And no, I will not tell you when Khrushchev, another nogoodnik, was mentioned in our you know what. The father of the Soviet space program, on the other hand, was mentioned many times since July 2018, but back to our story again.

While a successor to Sputnik 1 was already in the works, Korolev knew full well that this sophisticated spacecraft would not be ready for launch in early November. Indeed, Sputnik 3 was not placed into orbit until May 1958.

Korolev and his team therefore began to work on a less sophisticated satellite, and this at very high speed. Aware of the importance of increasing the media impact of their project, they quickly decided to take advantage of a suborbital flight program launched in 1951. Said program aimed to verify whether space flight with human beings was possible. The passengers of the rockets used for these flights were dogs.

And yes, their return to the ground was planned, thanks to a parachute system. Following a crash during the second flight, in July 1951, in which Desik and Lisa perish, the first victims of the space race, a very affected Korolev requested that an emergency ejection system be placed aboard the rockets.

For some reason or other (lack of time?), the canine passenger of the second Soviet satellite would not have such recovery systems. The designers of the capsule of that passenger may, I repeat may, have poisoned the last serving of food from its automatic feeder in order to end its life quickly and painlessly, thus preventing it from dying of thirst or lack of oxygen.

That canine cosmonaut was a female dog found (in 1957?) on the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists preferred to use stray dogs, which they claimed had learned to endure extreme cold and hunger. They also used female dogs for docility reasons and because it may have been easier to design the solid and liquid waste collection system for a female dog than for a male dog.

Which reminds me of 2 lines of dialogues in the somewhat disappointing 1995 science fiction horror film Species, a film whose plot involved / involves a bunch of American scientists and government agents trying to track down a drop dead gorgeous extraterrestrial-human hybrid the former had created in a very secret laboratory, and this before she had coitus with a male Home sapiens and produce babies which could end up wiping out humanity.

Character 1 - We decided to make it female so it would be more docile and controllable.

Character 2 - More docile and controllable, eh? You guys don’t get out much.

By the way, the role of the hybrid was played by the drop dead gorgeous and all too often nude Canadian model Natasha Tonya Henstridge, but I digress.

The personnel who trained the female dogs of the Soviet program apparently gave more than one name to the animal assigned to Sputnik 2 after a serious process of elimination, namely Kudryavka, Limontchik and Zhuchka. It was under the name of Laika, however. that this animal became known throughout the world.

A Soviet rocket launched Sputnik 2 into orbit on 3 November 1957, local time – and on 2 November, Ottawa, Ontario, time. The news came as a bombshell around the world, even though the Soviet media had been reporting for some time, a few weeks maybe, that a dog would go into orbit. Better yet, they had revealed the name of that canine cosmonaut, Kudryavka, even before the end of October. Would you believe that, in late October, early November, the Soviet state broadcaster Radio Moskva aired its barking?

And yes, now aware of the general public’s interest in space things, the Soviet government intended to squeeze that lemon to the last pip.

This being said (typed?), it did not seem to have departed from its penchant for half-truths and lies. The Radio Moskva announcer indeed claimed that Kudryavka had successfully participated in a few suborbital flights, which was absolutely false. It remained to be seen whether the pooch that the announcer may have encountered in the laboratory where its training took place was really Kudryavka.

Another example of lemon pressing before I forget. In Rome, Italy, the official daily of the Partito Comunista Italiano, l’Unita, published a photograph of one of the Soviet space dogs at the very beginning of November. That portrait of Linda accompanied a text according to which a satellite carrying at least one dog would be launched on 5 November. By the way, Linda had made a suborbital flight in June 1955. Its companion, Rita, unfortunately did not survive that experience, but let us return to Sputnik 2 and Kudryavka / Laika.

By the way, Soviet propaganda loved to point out that Sputnik 2 was a tad heavier than Sputnik 1. It actually tipped the scales at about 508 kilogrammes (about 1 121 pounds), compared to about 84 kilogrammes (about 184 pounds) for its predecessor.

Better yet, the main stage of the rocket might, I repeat might, have remained attached to Sputnik 2, which was not planned, which amounted to state that the USSR had managed to place into orbit an object weighing approximately 7 800 kilogrammes (about 17 200 pounds) which was about 34 metres (about 112 feet) long.

At the time, the United States had yet to put so much as a grapefruit, in French un pamplemousse (Hello, EP!), into orbit. Humiliations galore. Sorry.

And that was not all. Nay. Far from it. On 4 November, various Québec dailies reported the entry into service, the previous day, of a giant of the air, the largest “aérobus” in the world, the Tupolev Tu-114 Rossiya, a four-engine turboprop mastodon (Hello, lucky EP who went to Nova Scotia!) capable of carrying up to 220 passengers.

This announcement was actually an outright lie. The prototype of the Tu-114 did not make its first flight until mid November 1957. Worse still, that airliner intended for the Soviet air carrier, Aeroflot, did not enter service until April 1961.

As a comparison, the much faster American Boeing Model 707 and Douglas DC-8 jet airliners had entered service in October 1958 and September 1959. These two Cold War classics were manufactured in approximately 1 420 examples, compared to just over… 30 examples for the Tu-114.

Incidentally, Aeroflot pilots and crews had begun to operate the first Soviet jet airliner, the second operational jet airliner in the world actually, the Tupolev Tu-104, in September 1956. Only 200 or so of these aircraft prone to accidents, fatal in most cases, went into service, but back to Sputnik 2.

Let us take a look at what headlines which appeared on the front pages of Québec daily newspapers published in Montréal and Québec on 4 November looked like:

Le Soleil of Québec: “Russian rocket on its way to the Moon?”

La Presse of Montréal: “Sputnik II continues its course”

Le Devoir of Montréal: “Decisively confirming its scientific lead, the USSR launches a second satellite”

Please note that I took the liberty of translating all titles and quotes in the main text.

You are welcome.

If La Patrie of Montréal also put its article on Sputnik 2 on the front page, an article entitled “The St-Cuthbert hold-up cleared up – The height of a bandit leads to 4 arrests” held a place as important as “‘Frisée’ is doing well aboard Sputnik II.” This being said (typed?), two photographs of a female dog identified as the so-called Frisée, the daily affirmed, accompanied said text.

Here they are.

Two female dogs from the Soviet space program. Anon., “‘Frisée’ se porte bien à bord du spoutnik II.” La Patrie, 4 November 1957, 1.

To answer the question which is starting to ricochet inside your little noggin, the term Frisée, in English curly, was derived from the aforementioned Russian word Kudryavka, which meant / means little curly.

It should be noted that La Patrie offered to its readership a photograph of staff members of the Glavnaya Astronomicheskaya Observatoriya Akademii Nauk SSSR, in other words of the main astronomical observatory of the academy of sciences of the USSR, near Leningrad. Having found elsewhere a better quality version of said photograph, yours truly chose to offer it to your viewing pleasure.

You are welcome.

Staff members of the Glavnaya Astronomicheskaya Observatoriya Akademii Nauk SSSR busy observing Sputnik 2, Pulkovo, USSR. Anon., “Sputnik II through Russian eyes.” Astronautics, January 1958, 49.

L’Action catholique of Québec, for its part, placed its article on Sputnik 2, “After dogs, gorillas would be launched into space,” on the front page along with a text entitled “New fiscal concessions to the provinces?"

Montréal-Matin of… Montréal went it alone by publishing its article on page 3: “Scientists hope to bring it back to our planet – A dog orbits the earth aboard a new Russian satellite!” That daily indeed preferred to place a slightly more local subject on the front page: “Tragic fire – 2 dead, on Stanley street."

While yours truly does not intend to review all the articles on Sputnik 2 and Laika which appeared in the Québec press, allow me to note, in alphabetical order, the titles of those which appeared on the front page of a major Montréal daily, La Presse, on 4 November:

“Another defeat for the West”

“Comparison of the two Soviet satellites”

“The dog Laika still alive”

“Need to rethink our values,” says Hon. L. B. Pearson”

“Rocket gone to the Moon?”

“The satellite, acquisition for the world”

“The signal of Sputnik No. 2 heard yesterday”

“Sputnik II in North America”

“Sputnik II visible in Toronto tomorrow morning”

“Urgency to revise the defence program in the United States”

“Volunteers refused by the Soviets”

Now, my reading friend, who is the L. B. Pearson mentioned a few seconds ago? The former Secretary of State for External Affairs of Canada (1948-57), former president of the United Nations General Assembly (1952-53) and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1957) Lester Bowles “Mike” Pearson, a gentleman mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2019, you say (type?). Very good. Now let us move on.

The daily also offered its readership 3 photographs. One of them showing only a recording of the radio signals sent by Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, I thought it best not to present it to you.

You are welcome.

Here are the other two.

A photography session during a press conference during which the Soviet authorities presented several space dogs, Moscow. Anon. “Le Spoutnik II poursuit sa course.” La Presse, 4 November 1957, 1.

Drawing showing the trajectories of the Soviet satellites Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. This was actually a partially Frenchified version of a drawing created by the American press agency Associated Press Incorporated. Anon., “Le parcours des deux satellites artificiels.” La Presse, 4 November 1957, 1.

Oh, and there was a very small article, at the bottom of that first page, in La Presse of 4 November entitled “Insects in a satellite of the United States.” As far as yours truly can tell, the content of that article proved to be inaccurate. Small arthropods were not on the menu of the American space program in 1957-58 but they might be on yours, literally, before too, too long. Bon appétit. Sorry.

And yes, some of the articles which touched on Sputnik 2 were sometimes a bit hard to… swallow. Sorry. A former United States Army signalman living in Saint-Laurent, Québec, not far from Montréal, for example, claimed to have picked up the satellite’s signals twice during the evening of 3 November using a barely modified television set. I kid you not. Each time, he telephoned a local radio station and placed the handset near the speaker of said television set so that employees of that station could hear the signal from the satellite.

Basil Goldman in his residence with his television set, Saint-Laurent, Québec. Anon. “Dans le ‘Spoutnik’ – Le message de ‘Spoutnik II’ capté à St-Laurent.” Montréal-Matin, 5 November 1957, 15.

A little bird told me that this person was called Basil Goldman. That resident of Saint-Laurent claimed to have managed to adjust his television set so as to be able to capture the signals emitted by Sputnik 2.

In a completely different vein, it should be noted that one of the 4 editorials published in La Presse on 4 November was entitled “Another satellite is created.” Its author obviously noted the presence of Laika in interplanetary space, a “prelude to the journeys undertaken by men, some day, in these regions almost totally hidden until now from human knowledge.”

And yes, the word men left out more than half of the human population of planet Earth. Is it not (sadly?) amusing how white male Homo sapiens think of themselves as the default setting of our species?

If it was / is true that science knew / knows no frontiers and that the value of the Soviet success was to be noted, “it is regrettable, for the prestige of the United States, that they have been outstripped in that field of research.” Worse still, “the launch of the two Soviet satellites presupposes knowledge that could be used for the manufacture of ballistic projectiles.” Western countries certainly had cause to worry about the progress made by the USSR.

Dare I mention that the USSR certainly had cause to worry about the progress made by United States in the field of ballistic projectiles, of intercontinental ballistic missiles more precisely? After all, if the Korolev 8K71 / R-7 Semyorka missile entered service in 1959, the American Convair SM-65 Atlas entered service in… 1959. Too controversial, you say, my caring reading friend? You are probably right. I shall therefore not dare.

Continuing his thought, the editorialist noted that this progress in matters of ballistic projectiles had caused the beginnings of a reversal in American policy in the field of scientific research. The American government might indeed consider exchanging information with friendly / allied countries, thus abandoning its isolationism. The editorialist concluded his text by wondering whether such an exchange of information, initiated earlier, might have enabled the United States to avoid the loss of prestige caused by the launches of the Soviet satellites.

Indeed, James Geoffrey “Geoff” Notman, president of Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, and president of the Air Industries and Transport Association of Canada, stated in Québec, Québec, on 4 November, during the annual meeting of that association, that Soviet satellites presented a challenge to Western technology and, even more, to the complacency of Western countries which certainly no longer had a monopoly on high technology.

And yes, Canadair, one of the most important Canadian aircraft manufacturers of the Cold War period, was mentioned moult times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and has been for a long time, since February 2018 in fact.

The most important daily newspaper in Québec, the city of course, Le Soleil, for its part, tackled the canine aspect of putting Sputnik 2 into orbit. An article published on the front page on November 4 was indeed entitled “The fate imposed on Frisée does not scandalise the veterinarians of Québec.” A veterinarian from Lévis, Québec, Édouard Roy, for example, pointed out that “The dog remains the guinea pig of medicine and it is logical that science has used it to confront its resistance, the closest to that of human beings.”

Yours truly must admit to being surprised by such a comment. I would have thought a chimpanzee would have done the job better. In fact, it is to such cousins ​​of Homo sapiens that the American space program called on to verify if flight in space with human beings was possible.

The president of the Toronto Humane Society of… Toronto, Ontario, Fraser Grant, seemed to share the opinion of Roy and of the Quebecer daily. As long as the comfort, nutrition and survival of the animal were assured, “It is not for humane societies to prevent such vital and important research into space travel."

That view was certainly not shared by everyone. An article published in Le Soleil indeed underlined that a British organisation, the National Canine Defence League, had sent a letter to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR in the United Kingdom, Yakov Aleksandrovich Malik. There was no reason to send a dog into space, the league stated.

Its management actually asked dog friends around the world to observe a daily minute of silence as a sign of sympathy with the Soviet female dog.

On 4 November, the first secretary of the Embassy of the USSR welcomed representatives of the National Canine Defence League, but not the 2 boxers who were escorting them. Boxers, you ask, my perplexed reading friend? Yes, yes, a pair of boxers – and we are not talking (typing?) underwear here. I am as perplexed as you are, but back to our story.

Yuri Ivanovich Modin told the representatives of the National Canine Defence League that the purpose of Laika’s space flight was to verify whether space flight with human beings was possible, and...

You suddenly seem quite restless, my reading friend. Does the name Modin ring a bell? It should. In the early 1950s, that agent of the infamous Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti SSSR (MGB) and Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) was the handler of 5 (or 4?) British traitors who were then providing confidential / secret / top secret information to the USSR, namely Anthony Frederick Blunt, Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess, John Cairncross (?), Donald Duart Maclean and Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby.

Would you believe that it was through the good offices of Modin that Burgess and Maclean skedaddled to the USSR in 1951, shortly before the latter were to be arrested?

And no, I will not tell you when the MGB and KGB were mentioned in our you know what.

And yes, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also denounced the sending into space of Laika. In fact, the United States Department of State was to send letters of protests from the ASPCA to the Soviet government.

A short text published on the front page of the Montréal daily Le Devoir entitled “Poor doggy” mentioned both the reaction of the National Canine Defence League and that of the ASPCA. Texts published in another daily newspaper of the metropolis of Canada, La Patrie, also mentioned them.

Neither of these animal protection groups knew that Laika would perish in space, especially since, to quote the title of an article which appeared in Le Soleil, “The Russians will try to bring the female dog on earth alive."

Before I forget, Le Devoir also offered its readers a slightly truncated version of a photograph of Soviet origin to accompany its 4 November edition. The untruncated version of said photograph appeared on the front page of L’Action catholique. There it is…

A female dog described as Laika shortly after returning from a suborbital flight. Anon., “Expérience russe.” L’Action catholique, 4 November 1957, 1.

Another photograph of Soviet origin appeared in Montréal-Matin.

A female dog described as Laika wearing a kind of spacesuit. Anon., “Un chien tourne autour de la terre à bord d’un nouveau satellite russe!” Montréal-Matin, 4 November 1957, 3.

The two female dogs described as Laika actually appeared to be other members of the Soviet space dog team.

You saw that photograph a few moments ago, you say, my reading friend? Well, I guess you are right. Sorry about that. Or not.

A rather long digression if I may. On 3 November, Montréal-Matin published a text concerning the sacking from his duties of a certain Yuri Sergeyevich Khlebtsevich, ex-president of a technical committee on the guidance of rockets by means of radio and television signals.

What was the fault, dare I say (type?) the original sin, committed by that researcher active in the paradise of the proletariat, you ask, my reading friend? Khlebtsevich had overseen the production of an animated cartoon, apparently shown in the USSR and abroad, which showed a space mission to the Moon which included the smooth landing of a probe carrying a small exploration vehicle radio-controlled from Earth.

Mind you, Khlebtsevich had also published an article in a 1956 issue of Tekhnika-Molodezhi, a popular science / technology youth magazine published since 1933, and another, in 1957, in an issue of Znaniye-Sila, a popular science magazine published since 1926. Either of these articles may, I repeat may, have addressed that concept.

An article published in 1957 in Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the official daily newspaper of the Vsesoyuznyy Leninskiy Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodozhi, the youth organization of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, addressed said concept as clearly as one could imagine, if only briefly. Khlebtsevich suggested therein that the Moon landing of such a vehicle could take place between 1965 and 1971.

This idea, considered fantastic in 1957, hence the sacking of its author, in fact strangely resembled the mission which saw the Soviet probe Luna 17 land gently on the Moon in… September 1970. The latter having deployed a double ramp, a small exploration vehicle radio-controlled from Earth began to move on the Moon – a world first.

Designed to operate for about 90 days, Lunokhod 1 lasted for more than 300 days, that is until September 1971, after traveling a distance of about 10.55 kilometres (6.55 miles), after performing 25 lunar soil analyses, and after taking over 20 000 television images and over 200 high resolution panoramas.

Khlebtsevich unfortunately died in 1966, the year in which the preliminary concept of Lunokhod was approved. He was barely around 60 years old. It was / is a safe bet that he had no idea of what was coming. Pity.

Yours truly will in fact add to your disappointment by hereby concluding the first part of this article on Laika and Sputnik 2.

And yes, you were absolutely right, journalists contacted Canada’s Dominion astronomer, a gentleman mentioned in a few issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020, in order to obtain his opinion. “Whether we should be surprised at anything now I do not know. I doubt it,” Carlyle Smith Beals stated. This being said (typed?), he stated he was a tad surprised by the launch date. Beals and several others had expected the Soviet satellite to be placed into orbit on the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution which, let us remember, began on 7 November, not on 3 November.

See ya later.

Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier