Russia fetes dog Laika, first earthling in space

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow on Friday feted Laika, a plain stray dog which became famous half a century ago as the first living creature from Earth to fly into space.

Russia’s official RTR channel showed venerable grey-haired academics laying flowers at a monument near the city’s Military Medicine Institute, depicting the agile, good-natured dog strapped into a dissected Vostok rocket.

The monument was unveiled on the eve of Cosmonauts’ Day, marking Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin’s April 12, 1961 space flight.

Gagarin’s 108-minute mission in orbit was the first manned flight into space and dealt a severe blow to the prestige of the Soviet Union’s Cold War rival, the United States.

But long before Gagarin’s flight, it was Laika who successfully blasted off into space on November 3, 1957, proving that a living creature could survive being launched into space and experiencing weightlessness.

Laika, trained for eight months -- including in a centrifuge and a pressure chamber -- died during her historic flight.

The U.S. space program relied mainly on tests with primates in its early stages, a fact derided by Russian scientists.

“Monkeys are very ill-mannered -- they try to clutch whatever they can, they fancy they can switch whatever they want,” RTR showed Vladimir Ponomarenko, head of a space and aviation academy, saying with a smile.

“But the dog is a friend of humans and is easy to train.”

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Tim Pearce