IN JUNE 1961, an unusual delivery was made to the American White House. Pushinka, a shaggy mixed-breed puppy, had been dispatched on the personal order of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as a gift to the wife and daughter of President John F. Kennedy.
The pooch may not have been a purebred, but she had something much more impressive in her bloodline: as an accompanying letter explained, Pushinka was “a direct descendant of the famous space traveler Strelka.”
Some thought the gift was a subtle way of rubbing in the fact that the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, but it could also be seen as a gesture meant to promote warmer relations between the two superpowers. Both perspectives fit into the vast mythology that surrounded the high-flying pooches Belka and Strelka, the first animals to successfully return from orbit sixty years ago, in 1960.
A CORPS OF CURS
It was another canine pair that was supposed to make the historic flight. Belka and Strelka were being trained as backups to the lead space dogs, Chaika and the red-haired Lisichka, who were much beloved by the Soviet space program’s chief designer, Sergei Korolyov. But Lisichka and Chaika died earlier that year when their rocket exploded during launch. After this catastrophe, it was considered bad luck to send copper-colored dogs into space.
Four-legged cosmonaut candidates were recruited straight from the street. Mongrels were preferred over purebreds for their adaptability and lack of pretentiousness, and females were favored over males (because it was easier to outfit them for sanitation). The candidate space travelers had to be young (but at least a year and a half old), healthy, friendly, and relatively small and light – no more than seven kilograms. Vladimir Yazdovsky, who headed research into the medical and safety aspects of piloted space flight, recalled: “The color of the coat is also an important characteristic. The coat should preferably be light-colored, because filming and television is used during flight as a way of observing the animals. It is also preferable for the animals to be short-haired. Long hair makes it harder to attach sensors and put on clothing, and it gets all over the cabin and frame to which the animal is attached.”
And, of course, it was nice to have photogenic dogs, since it was hoped they would achieve worldwide superstardom.
To this day, fabricated stories about the “star dogs” abound. The internet, even serious sources, is filled with fairy tales, such as that Belka and Strelka were originally named Albina and Marquise, but were renamed on the personal initiative of Mitrofan Nedelin, commander-in-chief of the Strategic Missile Force. As that story goes, Nedelin felt it was improper for Soviet animals to have foreign names.
Nobody knows where this piece of fiction originated. The story is accurate in one sense: the dogs were indeed renamed before being sent into orbit.
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