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Who Was the First Astronaut?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The first astronaut was either the Soviet Yuri Gagarin or the Soviet dog Laika, depending on whether the definition is restricted based on species. Both are remembered for their accomplishments and contributions to space travel.

Laika, a name that literally means "barker" and was based on her breed, was launched into space on 3 November 1957 on board Sputnik 2, becoming the first animal to orbit the Earth. This took place only a month after the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched, on 4 October 1957. Sputnik 2 was the second spacecraft launched into Earth orbit.

The dog was selected from the pound, and at one time was a homeless dog wandering the streets of Moscow. She died only a few hours after launch, due to stress and overheating from a malfunctioning thermal control unit. As the technology to return a payload to Earth was not available at the time, it was planned to put the canine astronaut to sleep with poisoned food on the 10th day of flight.

The cabin of Sputnik 2 included a life-support system with an oxygen generator, a fan that was supposed to activate when the temperature exceeded 59° F (15° C), gelatinous food for a 10-day flight, and a bag to collect waste. When some of the thermal insulation tore loose after separation of the last stage, the temperature of the cabin increased to 104° F (40° C), and Laika died within 5 to 7 hours after great stress. The precise cause of the dog's death was not made public until decades later.

As satellite and space technology rapidly progressed, the Soviet Union once again decided to pioneer the way forward in space by launching the first human astronaut. Yuri Gagarin was launched into space on 12 April 1961, about three and a half years after the launch of Sputnik. Traveling on board Vostok 1, Gagarin orbited the Earth just once, which took 108 minutes.

Gagarin then ejected from the capsule, about 4.35 miles (7 km) above the ground, parachuting to Earth a few hundred miles (km) away from the launch site in Kazakhstan. Some villagers witnessed Vostok 1 hit the ground near where Gagarin landed with his parachute. Being the world's first astronaut, Gagarin instantly became an international celebrity.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon356734 — On Nov 28, 2013

I think this animal should have had freedom because it was the first of its breed.

By anon331215 — On Apr 21, 2013

They killed more people in camps than the Nazis did. You really think a dog mattered to them?

By anon252894 — On Mar 07, 2012

Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut in the world! Russia and America (during the iron curtain) were in the race. Who was the first to fly in space? It was Gagarin.

By anon146615 — On Jan 26, 2011

Yuri Gagarin would have been the first Cosmonaut, and Alan Shepard the first Astronaut "in space", but who was the first Astronaut?

By anon53639 — On Nov 23, 2009

You guys are really good. Well, I think Laika deserved to be honoured as being the first animal on sputnik 2 into orbit. Kunle from Naija

By anon51213 — On Nov 04, 2009

i will give it to yuri gagarin. by the way, where's he? uchey, nigeria

By anon51181 — On Nov 03, 2009

I pray that Laika is in heaven with the rest of the animals who had passed away.

By anon51159 — On Nov 03, 2009

Thanks very much for this kind of communication. I appreciate a lot your efforts in that way. I am not interested in any polemic about the information.

By anon51115 — On Nov 03, 2009

We have a Samoyed and named her Laika. If there is such a thing as reincarnation I guarantee she is getting a better treatment this time around. --JAS

By anon51102 — On Nov 03, 2009

If we want to be pedantically accurate, Yuri Gagarin was supposed to be the first Cosmonaut in space. The first Astronaut was American test pilot Alan Shepard, Jr.

Whoever it was, it sure was an exciting time, even if we didn't see the launches on television. I was in grade nine in 1961, the time of the first space shot, and we never got a T.V. till 1963, out of choice. We were just glued to the radio whenever there was a space shot!

By anon51085 — On Nov 03, 2009

All in all, Laika will always be remembered as a hero. I agree with anon #4567,however,and today fight for animal rights! Still, this is an interesting story. Now I know where my friend got her dog's name, "Laika."

By anon51078 — On Nov 03, 2009

Wasn't there also a chimp?

By anon28243 — On Mar 13, 2009

Yuri, without doubt was the first astronautic. There may be unsubstantiated proof, but he remains the first.

Edozie, Nigeria

By anon5390 — On Nov 23, 2007

There is a case where people think that Yuri was not the first human in space, but in fact, someone else. There was an incident where a bunch of high school students were listening to satellites in space. They found one and tracked it for hours, hearing something that sounded like Russian and a heart rate monitor. They recorded it down and after a while, they heard the heart rate continuously slow down until it stopped. Not knowing what it was, the students brought it to a doctor who told them that it was the sound of a human in the last stages of death. So, I'm not really sure if Yuri is the first human in space or not.

By anon4567 — On Oct 23, 2007

What a horrible way to treat an innocent animal who had no choice in the matter! Poor Laika. She would have been much better off being euthanized at the pound.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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