Today on March 9, 1961, Blackie, the Russian space dog, returned to Earth (alive!) after orbiting around the planet.
How does one know if humans can survive in space? Send some dogs up there first, of course! Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union heavily relied on using canines to evaluate whether a human spaceflight could actually happen. In total, the Soviet Space Program launched dogs into orbit more than 57 times — some even made multiple trips to space. These brave animals were known as the Soviet Space Dogs. One of the most famous and beloved was a dog named Blackie. Miraculously, most of the space dogs survived the experimental flights and safely returned to Earth. However, a few sadly ended up dying from various technical issues. On August 15, 1951, Dezik and Tsygan became the first dogs to make a sub-orbital flight. Six years later, Laika the Space Dog made history by becoming the first to orbit the Earth from space fully.
In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of the space dogs, Pushinka ("Fluffy"), to Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy. A Cold War canine romance eventually flourished with another of the Kennedy dogs named Charlie. President Kennedy later referred to the new puppies as 'pupniks.' On March 9 at 06:29 UTC, the USSR launched Sputnik-9 carrying one of the pupniks named Chernushka, nicknamed Blackie. In addition to the dog, the spacecraft carried several mice and a guinea pig with it. After orbiting around the planet once, it landed back on USSR soil at 08:09 UTC. During its descent, the spacecraft ejected a mannequin to test the newly developed ejection seating. Blackie became one of the most famous of the four-legged cosmonauts.
Russian scientists preferred to use dogs for their experiments because they felt canines were best suited to endure long periods of inactivity. They spent quite a bit of time training and preparing the dogs for these missions. Most were confined to a small box for up to twenty days as practice. The space program typically employed stray female dogs, as they were theoretically best suited to handle extreme stress. The training also involved placing them into simulators to practice standing still for an extended period — all while wearing their spacesuits. Dogs were fed a nutritious high-protein jelly while in space.