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Laika’s Lasting Gift to American Spaceflight

Vintage Space iconVintage Space
By Amy Shira Teitel
Nov 4, 2017 12:20 AMMar 24, 2023 5:00 PM
A stamp printed in Democratic People's republic of Korea shows Spacedog Laika, Transport serie, circa 1987
(Credit:Mirt Alexander/Shutterstock)


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“Dog in Second Satellite Alive; May be Recovered, Soviet Hints; White House is Calm Over Feat” The headline blared across the front page of the New York Times on November 4, 1957. The story continued on page 8 with follow up articles on pages 9 and 10.

The space age was only a month old and the satellite both excited and terrified Americans who feared bombs would start dropping from space. But one US Air Force flight surgeon was fascinated by the biometric data. Four years later, Duane Graveline would turn his fascination with Laika into the beginnings of a career in Soviet intelligence that helped NASA’s own man in space program. 

Sputnik 2

When the first Sputnik satellite launched on October 4, 1957, Nikita Khrushchev wasn’t particularly thrilled. The Soviet premier cared more about the R-7 missile that had launched it; he’d only okayed the small satellite on the condition that it not interfere with the missile development. But when he saw the reaction to the small satellite in the West, he changed his tune. Suddenly he was thrilled not by the launch but about the psychological victory it had brought his nation.

“We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans. But you did it,” Khrushchev exclaimed to Sergei Korolev, the chief designer behind the R-7 program, at the Kremlin just days after the launch. “Now please, launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution.”

Khrushchev wasn’t a man to beat around the bush, nor was he a man who didn’t get his way. But this was a tall order. The 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution was on November 7, which gave Korolev and his team about a month to get something bigger and better into space. And so he called his engineers back just five days into their vacation and put them to work. It was, by all accounts, one of Korolev’s happiest months. There were no special drawings, no endless quality checks — there simply wasn’t time. All that mattered was a free flow of work and ideas.

The satellite developed into a monster. Nearly 1,120 pounds it was more than six times heavier than Sputnik’s 184 pounds. It also had a passenger on board, a mutt with short hair and a long neck named Laika. Weighing just 13 pounds, she was chosen for her docile nature, curious disposition and her ability to urinate without lifting a leg; a small consideration that simplified the capsule.

She was trained like a cosmonaut, doing centrifuge runs and living on jellied space dog food. When she launched on November 3, her trainers wept. The final caresses they'd given her the night before felt inadequate for the fear she was likely feeling now.

Laika in the West

Hours into the mission, the Soviet media reported that Laika was alive and well and would be returning home soon. In reality, she wasn’t and she wouldn’t. Not only did her spacecraft have no means for reentry and landing, she succumbed to overheating and dehydration in a matter of hours when part of her environmental control system failed.

Halfway across the world in Ohio, Duane Graveline followed the news on Laika's flight with interest. A physician with the US Air Force, he knew manned missions were just around the corner, but his interest was more in the physical challenges these men would face rather than the glory they would bring to the nation.

Itching to start unraveling the mystery of how humans would survive microgravity, and in particular the deconditioning that was sure to come with relative physical inactivity in space, he’d done some preliminary studies on his own. The best analogue he could come up with was a water tank. He'd floated for a full week straight seeking to simulate what microgravity would do to his heart. But it wasn't enough. What Graveline wanted was Soviet data.

Graveline knew that the Soviets had launched dogs and rabbits on suborbital flights in anticipation of Laika, who was herself taking the first steps before a human cosmonaut would fly. He knew it because there was no way the Soviets had come up with a life support system from scratch in the month after Sputnik. He also knew it because while the space program remained shrouded in secrecy, Soviet scientists were able to publish non-classified work in scholarly journals, though only a handful ever reached their colleagues in the west.

Graveline also knew that none of the animals had been recovered but the data, clearly, had been. That meant one thing: the data had been transferred to Earth as telemetry on radio waves, which meant it was possible American tracking stations had intercepted the signal as Sputnik 2 passed overhead.

(Credit: NASA) Graveline's astronaut portrait.

White Stork

Four years later in early 1961, both the United States and the Soviet Union were on the cusp of launching humans into space but Duane Graveline had not forgotten about Laika. Determined to understand how the Soviets were gathering biomedical data, he drove himself past miles of signs warning trespassers away to arrive at the gray building that housed the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

He didn’t have formal orders, he didn’t even know who he wanted to talk to. He might as well have walked up to the Kremlin waving an American flag. When the commanding officer asked what he wanted, he said, simply, he wanted to see Laika data. It turned out that there was a program looking in on Soviet data snatched from the skies under a larger program called White Stork. It was also lucky that the officer took his brazen arrival as moxie and not a threat.

Graveline was ushered into a windowless room whose four walls were lined with metal filing cabinets. At the centre was a long wooden table. He took a seat and was handed a stack of telemetry data. It was the first time he'd seen anything like it, but the patterns of dots and squiggly lines were unmistakable. One line was an electrocardiogram printout, dashed rather than solid owing to the system the Soviets used to transfer the data. Another line showed inhalation and exhalation. It was electrical intelligence.

Graveline couldn’t help but marvel at the sophistication of the Soviet’s data, that he was holding a printout of Laika's heartbeat and breathing rates. But the data itself wasn’t enough. Graveline wanted to understand how the Soviets had been able to monitor the dog’s vitals from space so he’d be ready to unravel later biomedical data similarly snatched as missions passed overhead.

He followed a hunch. He’d noticed in the odd Soviet medical journal that dogs prepared for space had devices attached to the sides of their necks. He wondered if it wasn’t a blood pressure device wrapped around an externalized carotid artery, the artery that provides blood supply to the scalp, face, and neck.

“I’ve never even heard of this before,” was the answer from John McAllister, the base veterinarian at Wright-Patterson, when Graveline shared his idea. “But I can see no reason why it could not be done.” A short-haired breed with a long neck would be ideal for surgically exposing a loop of the carotid artery; Laika certainly fit the bill here.

To test Graveline's theory, the physician and the veterinarian picked out a dog and did the surgery themselves. It worked. The beagle they named Sputnik was healthy and happy after the surgery, and amazingly didn’t scratch it’s neck with a back foot. Graveline then had an electrical engineer on base build a small hinged metal cylinder containing a bladder that he could inflate remotely with a syringe of air. He wrapped it around the exposed artery and got the same results Laika's data shows. He was measuring the dog’s systolic and diastolic pressure the same way a doctor does with a cuff around a bicep.

Oleg Gazenko

(Credit:FUEL Publishing via collectorsweekly.com.)Gazenko holds up Belka and Strelka after their successful orbital mission.

Graveline's work unraveling Laika's data begat classified papers and a promotion to Director of Analysis for Soviet Bioastronautics. It also meant that when Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov orbited the Earth in 1961, Graveline and his team were ready to observe the biomedical data. Working backwards, they started to understand not only what was happening to bodies in space but what questions the Soviets were gathering data on for their own eventual long-term missions.

The information was sorely needed if the United States was going to keep pace. A 1962 CIA report admitted that “the Soviets have a definite lead in the observation of zero-gravity effects on man following brief orbital flights.” The more Graveline dug into Soviet data and thought through the problems astronauts would be facing in space, he came back to the big issue of cardiovascular deconditioning. And the more he worked the more he became fascinated with Oleg Gazenko. As a physician, it fell to Gazenko to prepare cosmonauts for flight and evaluate their physicality during and after a mission.

This made him Graveline's counterpart in the question of deconditioning, but unlike engineers who worked in obscurity, Gazenko was able to travel to medical conferences meaning he and Graveline could meet and exchange research... as long as that research was declassified and meeting were done under the watchful eye of an escort of KGB officers, translators, and military personnel of course. The two men knew of each other and each other’s work before they finally met in Milan in the fall of 1962.

Thronged by admirers and under observation, the two men didn't have a chance to really talk, but Gazenko had a gift for Graveline. He presented the American doctor with a Matreshka doll showing a mother nursing a baby. “Mother Earth suckling her returning cosmonauts,” Gazenko explained to a bewildered Graveline. He didn't get it, and once back home started mining White Stork data for any mention of suckling, sucking, Mother Earth, cosmonauts… any combination of keywords that might explain why his Soviet hero had given him the odd doll.

Lower Body Negative Pressure

Months wore on as Graveline continued his own research into deconditioning. Astronauts and cosmonauts were reporting a heavy feeling when they came back to Earth, and lightheadedness and feeling faint were also problems. Finally, he had a suspicion as to why.

In microgravity, the fluid in the body pools in an astronaut's torso and head; the circulatory system works the same way but it's no longer fighting gravity to move fluid up from the lower extremities. Once back on Earth, the sudden return to 1g means a shift in fluid from the upper body to the lower body. What's normal on Earth feels abnormal compared to microgravity. It was affecting the heart, but Graveline wasn't sure how to study the problem.

Talking it over with fellow physician Earl Wood one day brought a Eureka moment. “We need to trap blood from the waist down,” said Wood, thinking through the problem out loud. “Almost like sucking their lower extremities. That would do it.” Immediately Graveline thought of the Matreshka doll. Mother Earth wasn’t suckling her returning cosmonauts, she was sucking! It had been a cryptic clue from Gazenko telling him how to address the problem of deconditioning. Like he’d done investigating his hunch about Laika’s blood pressure data, Graveline commissioned a device to investigate this sucking idea.

He got what looked like half a coffin with a rubberized waistband that fit snug over the wearer's midsection. He slipped his own legs into it and pumped the air out of the chamber using a vacuum device, creating negative pressure on his lower body. The fluid moved to his lower extremities like it did on an astronaut returning from space. It was the same as a tilt table test only he was supine; his heart rate and blood pressure looked as though he was standing up even though he was lying down.

This meant it could be used in space where there isn't an up or down since it didn't matter whether the subject was upright or not. It was the solution Graveline and NASA needed to understand heart health of astronauts, and he couldn't say he was surprised to see a similar device used by cosmonauts on the Mir space station. They hadn't gotten hold of his design. It was merely proof that he'd correctly interpreted Gazenko's gift.

Laika's Lasting Impact

Graveline’s own tenure as an analyst of Soviet Bioastronautics ended when he was selected as an astronaut in NASA’s fourth class of scientist-astronauts, but he never flew in space. He's credited with having one of the shortest astronaut careers ever. His official portrait was taken an hour after his wife's lawyer told him she was filing for divorce, which was essentially a career killer at the time.

Deke Slayton, then head of the astronaut office, joked that he was back working for the Air Force so fast he didn't even make it into the Group 4 class picture. His later medical career was similarly marred with controversy. He died in 2016. The lower body negative pressure device he helped develop, however, did make it to orbit, and astronauts still uses similar devices today.

I met Graveline in 2012, and our brief conversation centered around his recollection of seeing that Laika data for the first time, how that one moment of clarity around Soviet bioastronautics captured his imagination and set him on a career path. Not many people got to rub elbows with colleagues from the enemy nation during the Cold War, let alone surreptitiously share data with the enemy for the benefit of all mankind, but Graveline did. Fifty years after first seeing that data he still chalked it all up to the first dog in space.

Sources: Korolev by James Hartford; From Laika with Love by Duane Graveline.

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