Animals in Space

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Long before and long since men and women have gone into space, animals have been sent there. The space programs of seven countries have sent hundreds of animals into space.

Dogs make up far and away the highest number of animals of one type sent into space. Perhaps the most famous dog was Laika, the first animal to reach Earth orbit, aboard the Soviet Union's Sputnik 2, launched on November 3, 1957.

Dogs were not first in space, however. That non-human honor belongs to fruit flies, which flew aboard a V-2 rocket launched from an American Air Force base on February 20, 1947. The rocket went 68 miles up before ejecting the capsule containing the fruit flies. The capsule's parachute deployed, the capsule drifted back to the Earth's surface, and the fruit flies survived.

Other animals were not so lucky.

Two years after the fruit fly flight, Albert II, a rhesus monkey, went into space aboard an American rocket. Albert and his rocket reached 83 miles up, but a parachute failure meant that Albert didn't survive the return trip.

More monkeys followed Albert II into space during the 1940s and 1950s; many did not survive. Their flights did, however, give scientists valuable data, including insights into the effects of spaceflight on the animals' bodies.

Also in the 1950s, the U.S. launched mice into space, again aboard a V-2 rocket. The mice met the face of Albert II when the parachute failed.

In 1951, the Soviet Union sent two dogs into space. The dogs, Tsygan and Dezik, survived. More dog flights followed, and Laika, a stray rescued from the streets of Moscow, became famous in 1957. (Some in the West called the dog "Muttnik," a mix of "mutt," or dog, and Sputnik, the name of the spacecraft.

Sputnik was not designed to return safely from Earth orbit, and so Laika died. Scientists think that she died during the flight. In any event, Sputnik 2 burned up on re-entry.

Two subsequent dogs to go into space, Belka and Strelka, had better luck because their spacecraft had been designed for re-entry. The dogs, launched in 1960, survived, along with the other animal passengers, a rabbit, dozens of mice and rats, and some fruit flies.

The Soviet Union launched dozens more dogs into space in the next few years before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, on April 12, 1961.

While the Soviet space program was sending dogs into space, the American space program was continuing with primates. The squirrel monkey Gordo went way up into space, reaching 600 miles up on December 13, 1958; however, an equipment failure during splashdown resulted in the loss of both the spacecraft and Gordo.

Able, a rhesus monkey, and Baker, a squirrel monkey, went 300 miles up and returned unharmed. Baker lived long after, dying of kidney failure at the age of 27, in 1984. Able was less fortunate, dying not longer after re-entry after an operation to remove an electrode under her skin.

One of the most famous primates in space was Ham, a chimpanzee who underwent specific training to do specific things during his time in space. He launched on January 31, 1961 and, among other things, pulled levers inside the spacecraft. Later that year, after Alan Shepard had become the first American human in space, Enos the chimp went into orbit, becoming the first of his species to do so. (Ham the chimp had not gone high enough to enter Earth orbit.)

In March 9, 1961, the Soviet space program launched a guinea pig, which survived. Also onboard were frogs, mice, and yet another dog; all survived as well.

The French space program got into the act in 1961, launching a rat. Two more French rats went up the following year, followed by Felicette the cat, in 1963. The rats survived; Felicette did not.

China's space program joined the menagerie, launching rats, mice, and dogs in the mid-1960s. Argentina launched a rat, named Belisario, in 1967. Further rat launches followed. Argentina also launched a cai monkey, in 1969. All of these animals survived.

Even after humans orbited the Earth, the Soviet space program continued sending animals into space. The dogs Veterok and Ugolyok launched on February 22, 1966 and orbited Earth for 22 days, a record not surpassed by humans until 1974. The Soviet space program also launched a Horsfield's tortoise, in 1968. By this time, animals' surviving flights into space had become the norm.

One of the last manned lunar missions, Apollo 16, carried with it a bunch of nematodes and five pocket mice. That was in 1972. The following year, Skylab 3, a manned mission to the American space station of the same name, carried the first fish and the first spiders into space. The fish was a mummichog; the arachnids were garden spiders named Arabella and Anita.

In the last decade of the existence of the Soviet Union, that country's space program continued to send animals into space, including monkeys, fruit flies, rats, frogs, newts, shrimp, and sand desert beetles.

The advent of the American Space Shuttle program created many opportunities for animals to go into space, many as part of student projects. Among the animals carried aboard Space Shuttle missions were the following:

  • ants
  • brine shrimp
  • carpenter bees
  • carp
  • crickets
  • frogs
  • fruit flies
  • golden orb spiders
  • gypsy moths
  • jellyfish
  • medakas
  • mice
  • osyter toadfish
  • rats
  • roundworms
  • snails
  • swordtail fish.

The European Space Agency in 2007 launched into space a cockroach, which became the first creature to give birth somewhere other than on Earth. Another 33 cockroaches were found inside the sealed container when the spacecraft returned to Earth.

Japan joined the animals-in-space initiatives in 1990, taking green tree frogs to the Russian space station Mir. In 1995, a Japanese Space Flyer Unit launched, carrying some newts. A Japanese supply ship carrying medakas docked with the International Space Station in 2012.

In 2010, Iran launched two turtles, one mouse, and some worms into space. These animals survived the re-entry trip.

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