Four ways in which the Soviets were the First to Explore Space

by Anna Wahler


Russia has a complicated history, to say the least. Decades of propaganda from both inside Russia and abroad have made it a dicey task to evaluate Russian and Soviet actions throughout history. But ask any Russian, and chances are they’ll agree on one thing: the Soviet space program was amazingly advanced and contributed to our knowledge about the solar system and beyond. Since April 12 marked the 57th anniversary of the first manned space mission, I dedicated this post to sharing four incredible space milestones that came from the USSR.



First Man-Made Satellite–Sputnik, 1957

1957 Marked a turning point in scientific discovery when a small ball-shaped satellite equipped with four long antennae was launched into orbit. The nominal function of Sputnik was to gather information about earth and outer space, and transmit it back to research stations in the USSR. However, the cold war tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States meant that many people feared the Soviets would put Sputnik to a more sinister use. Since Sputnik’s orbit passed around the whole world, including the USA, The American military realized that the USSR could use the knowledge it gathered to direct nuclear weapons.
The little satellite, the name of which means “fellow traveler” in Russian, circled the earth until January of the following year. During that time it launched no nuclear weapons. What it did accomplish, however, was change science forever. After only a few months in orbit, Sputnik burned up upon reentry. The Soviets calculated all of this into their plans. Sputnik 1 had done its job. A few months later, Sputnik II would be launched, this time with living cargo.


The original “Sputnik I” was destroyed, but there are many replicas of the historical spacecraft, including this life-size replica at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, USA Photo by Anna Wahler


First Animal in Space–Laika 1957

In 1950s Moscow, a scruffy stray dog wandered the streets. Little did she know that her life was about to take a momentous and tragic turn. The dog who went down in history as “Laika”–a word which in Russian simply denotes a breed of dog–was also given various other nicknames by her trainers. Some called her “Kudryavka” meaning “curly,” others dubbed her “Limonchik” which adorably meant “little lemon.” Those in charge of Laika’s mission thought that recruiting a stray for the program meant that the dog would be tough, accustomed to stress and danger. But sadly, not even a life on the streets of Moscow could prepare Laika for what to her would only be confusion and fear.
Animal rights activists have had a lot to say about Laika–both at the time of her launch, and now. She is a prime example of the ethics of animal testing, since she tested the effects of space travel on living beings before humans themselves were sent into orbit. The USA used monkeys, while the Russians preferred to send dogs, but the unfortunate fact remains that no country would likely have risked a human life before an animal.
Laika’s handler, Vladimir Yazdovsky, knew that the chances of her survival were slim. On the last day before she left earth, Yazdovsky took Laika home to play with his children, in the hope of giving the dog one last happy experience. In the USSR, Laika and the other dogs which took part in the mission as trained “backups,” were treated as heroes. Their images were reproduced onto postage stamps and posters, and their stories weren’t forgotten. Sadly, Laika never made it back to earth. Her satellite, Sputnik II, burned up just as Sputnik I did. If Laika wanted us to learn anything from her experience, it might be to remember that even though to us dogs like her are heroes of space exploration, the dogs themselves can’t understand what their sacrifice means.


A Romanian postage stamp celebrating Laika’s contributions to science {PD-1996}


First Human in Space–Yuri Gagarin, 1961

Like Laika, Yuri Gagarin came from an unassuming background. In fact, he was selected as a finalist from among hundreds of other applicants for this very reason. As the son of a manual laborer, a field of work given prestige in the Communist USSR, he was seen as the best choice for the space program in terms of both skill and background.
Gagarin, who was born in a small town near the capital of Moscow, was only 27 when he became the first human in space. Aboard his spacecraft Vostok (meaning “East”) was ten days’ worth of provisions for the sole passenger. However, these were only emergency supplies. Despite years of preparation, there was still the chance of complications such as engine failure, and so the cosmonaut was supplied with food to last him until the orbit of Vostok gradually dissolved and the space capsule fell back to the atmosphere. In total, Gagarin spent 108 minutes orbiting the earth.
After enduring such conditions as 8 times the normal forces of gravity, Gagarin’s ship began its reentry to the atmosphere. However, there was a hitch. The Vostok had no way to slow it’s extremely rapid descent. If the ship crashed, Gagarin would die instantly. Four miles up, he exited Vostok and parachuted to safety. The USSR covered up the parachute incident, preferring to let the world believe that a successful landing had taken place.
Though he returned to earth unharmed, becoming a world hero and recipient of the highest awards the USSR could give, Gagarin died in a tragedy only seven years later. A jet he was piloting flew too close to another aircraft and fell into a spin he couldn’t pull out of.


Yuri Gagarin in 1963 {PD-1996}


First Woman in Space–Valentina Tereshkova, 1963

Of all the social changes brought on by the Soviet Union, one of the most dramatic were the increased opportunities for women. And when it came to women in space, the USSR once again was ahead of the USA. Valentina Tereshkova was a young factory worker growing up in the 1940s, and who later became fascinated with space flight. She joined the Yaroslav Air Club and became an avid parachute jumper, eventually being selected for a space mission on account of having performed over 150 jumps.
In 1963, Tereshkova was chosen to pilot the Vostok VI. Her flight orbited the earth almost fifty times, and despite a scare in which her spacecraft appeared to be drifting out of orbit, Tereshkova and her ground team successfully returned her to earth unharmed. After her mission, Tereshkova remained involved with aeronautics. She worked as a test pilot and studied technical science. Tereshkova’s daughter, Elena, also had the distinction of being the first person to be born to two parents who had traveled in space. Tereshkova is still alive today, and takes an active role in Russian politics.


When not kicking ass and orbiting space, Valentina Tereshkova enjoys skiing. {PD-1996}


With so many remarkable space milestones, it’s no wonder that science fiction is so popular in the USSR. The stories of Laika, Gagarin, and Tereshkova are great inspiration to anyone writing about great acts of bravery and the triumph of human technology. But at the same time, it’s interesting to contemplate the often-hidden sides of these stories. Can you in good conscience sacrifice another creature if the cause is great enough? What is progress worth? We’ll be back next Monday with more history and writing content to share, and hope you’ll join us!

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