PARIS/MOSCOW • "I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time," said 90-year-old Russian biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, recalling the day she bid farewell to her charge, Laika.
The former street dog, whose name derives from the Russian word for "bark", was about to make history as the first living creature to orbit the Earth, blasting off on a one-way journey.
The Soviet Union sent Laika up to space in a satellite on Nov 3, 1957 - 60 years ago. It followed the first-ever Sputnik satellite launch earlier that year. The dog was able to survive for only a few hours, flying around the Earth nine times.
The hope was that Laika would stay alive for eight to 10 days, but instead, it died from overheating and dehydration after a few hours. The satellite carrying its remains burnt up in the atmosphere five months later, on April 14, 1958.
The first animals to go into space and return alive were a pair of dogs called Belka and Strelka, which blasted off in a rocket on Aug 19, 1960, and returned a day later. The success of that mission persuaded the Soviet authorities to go ahead with the highly risky first space trip by a human, cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, in April 1961.
Sixty years later, animals are still being sent into space, although chief scientist for the International Space Station programme Julie Robinson explained that these days, only large numbers of small animals are sent to accomplish biomedical research goals.
Rodents, fruit flies, fish are typically used, and rats are being considered for the future, Dr Robinson said. The experiments done with mice in space generally target areas to improve human health, such as treatments for osteoporosis and muscle loss. The results can be useful for developing treatments for bone loss on Earth or for other aspects of ageing, she added.