Belka and Strelka: Space Celebrities

55 years ago today, two “cosmonauts” went into orbit and safely returned.

Portraits of Belka and Strelka—adorably dressed in their red and green spacesuits—appeared on postcards (shown here), chocolates, matchboxes, stamps, and toys soon after their orbital flight in 1960. (By L. Aristov, from the postcard collection titled "Friends of Man." Copyright FUEL Publishing. Reprinted with permission.)
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Fifty-five years ago today, the canine cosmonauts Belka and Strelka became worldwide celebrities after spending one day in orbit. After their triumphant landing, they appeared on radio and television, and met politicians and celebrities, both Soviet and international. The dogs’ survival was important to the space race: On November 3, 1957, the world had followed Laika’s flight on board Sputnik 2. She wasn’t the first dog to go into space—the Soviets had performed at least 22 other tests with dogs and high-altitude rockets—but Laika was the first to go into orbit. There was international concern over Laika’s fate, and the actual cause of her death (she suffocated within hours of launch) wasn’t made public until 2002.

While Laika’s death may have briefly tarnished the Soviet space program, the USSR once again took the lead in the space race with the success of Belka and Strelka’s flight. Their story—along with many others—are found in Olesya Turkina’s lavishly illustrated book Soviet Space Dogs (2014, FUEL). Click on the slideshow images, below, to learn more about the dynamic duo.

Illustrations are from Soviet Space Dogs by Olesya Turkina, edited by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell (2014, FUEL Publishing). Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

The lucky dogs that survived their flights, writes Turkina, "lived out their days in the laboratory, where devoted attendants would chew bits of hard-to-find sausage before feeding it to the dogs who had lost their teeth in the battle to colonise space." Shown here is one of many matchbox label designs celebrating Laika. The text reads "The First Sputnik Passenger—the dog 'Laika'."
In this 1958 tin tray from Mexico, Betty Boop walks her Laika-like space dog. The text reads: "Lulu—refreshment bigger than your thirst."
Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists involved with the Soviet space program, holds Strelka (left) and Belka aloft at the press conference after their successful landing. In his memoirs, Gazenko referred to this event as the proudest moment of his life.
Belka and Strelka were originally named Albina and Marquise, writes Turkina. "The Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Missile Force, Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, decided they sounded too French and bourgeois, and ordered that they be replaced with decent Russian names." Pictured is a "Gzhel"-style ceramic Belka and Strelka porcelain flask, USSR.
A paper and cardboard chocolate box, produced at the Red October confectionery factory in 1960. The text reads: "Belka and Strelka—Space Travelers." During their flight, writes Turkina, "as they and the American satellite Echo 1 passed simultaneously over the Tyuratam cosmodrome, both dogs began to bark. This coincidence caused a thunderous cheer at the Soviet Mission Control Centre, and some wished that the space dogs had 'taken a piss' in the direction of their American counterpart."
A popular Soviet tale of the time described a love story that blossomed between Belka and a German shepherd, Kazbek, who was a military pre-flight trainer. In reality, it was Strelka who had a litter of six puppies, one of which was named Pushinka, and given as a gift to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline. Shown here is the back cover of the children's book "Belka and Strelka, and Their Journey" by M. Poznanskaya (USSR, 1964), with a romanticized image of how the dogs returned to Earth.
The book's cover, designed by Damon Murray, depicts Belka and Strelka almost as religious icons, alluding to their tremendous fame. The dogs' taxidermied remains are still on display at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow.
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