Why do we send animals into space?
The first journeys into space involving animals were used to test survivability and the potential for sending humans into space. Later, other scientific questions, such as ʀᴀᴅɪᴀᴛɪᴏɴ and weightlessness were examined.
The fruit flies
The first living creatures intentionally sent into space were fruit flies. These were transported aboard a V2 rocket on 20 February 1947.
The fruit flies were launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico as part of a research mission. The flies were the perfect passengers for the flight as their compact size, and relatively light weight made their storage easy and conserved on fuel consumption. At the time, little was known as to the effects of ᴄᴏsᴍɪᴄ ʀᴀᴅɪᴀᴛɪᴏɴ on organic matter. As fruit flies have a similar genetic make-up to humans, they were seen as an eligible subject for testing and research. On the safe recovery of the flies’ capsule, the scientists found that the flies’ genetics had not been ᴍᴜᴛᴀᴛᴇd by the ʀᴀᴅɪᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, which paved the way for future human spaceflight. The unnamed rocket travelled 67 miles into the air before parachuting back to Earth. NASA currently recognises the altitude of 66 miles (100km) as the point where space officially begins. Therefore, the fruit flies are considered the first animals ever to reach the final frontier.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ Union and US space programmes sent numerous species of animals into space, including monkeys, mice and dogs. However, these were suborbital flights, which meant the spacecraft passed into outer space before ғᴀʟʟing back to Earth without making an orbit.
Albert II, a Rhesus monkey
The first mammal in space was Albert II, a Rhesus monkey. Albert I’s mission had been unsuccessful, but the second Albert reached a distance of 83 miles on June 14, 1949. Albert was ᴀɴᴇsᴛʜᴇᴛɪᴢᴇd during flight and ɪᴍᴘʟᴀɴᴛed with sensors to measure his vital signs. Unfortunately, he d.i.ed on reentry when the parachute to his capsule failed. Two other monkeys, Albert III and IV also d.i.ed when their rockets failed.
Tsygan and Dezik the dogs
While the United States was experimenting with monkeys, the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ Union was experimenting with dogs. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ Union had slots for at least 57 dogs. However, because some dogs flew more than once, fewer than 57 actually participated.
The first dogs launched, Tsygan and Dezik, were aboard the R-1 IIIA-1. The dogs reached space on July 22, 1951, but did not orbit. They were the first mammals successfully recovered from spaceflight.
Laika the dogs
Laika the dog was the first living being in orbit. Laika was a young, mostly-Siberian husky. She was rescued from the streets of Moscow. Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ scientists assumed that a stray dog would have already learned to endure ʜᴀʀsʜ conditions of ʜᴜɴɢᴇʀ and cold temperatures. Laika and two other dogs were trained for space travel by being kept in small cages and learning to eat a nutritious gel that would be their food in space. She was launched on the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ Union’s Sputnik 2 mission in November 1957. The Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ Union stunned the world on Nov. 3, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 2. On board the small satellite was a little dog, Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth. However, with inadequate oxygen and food supplies, Laika’s d.ea.th in space was expected from the outset of the mission. In 2008, nearly 50 years after the historic flight, a monument to Laika was finally installed outside Star City, a military facility in Russia where she was trained for her trip. The statue resembles a rocket that merges into a hand, launching Laika into space.
Belka and Strelka the dogs
The first dogs to return from space alive were Belka and Strelka (‘Squirrel’ and ‘Little Arrow’) launched on 19 August 1960 by the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ space programme. Strelka gave birth to six puppies, one of which was given to US President John F Kennedy by the Sᴏᴠɪᴇᴛ leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Other living creatures
The first fish in space were South American guppies. They spent 48 days in orbit on the Russian Salyut 5 spacecraft in 1976.
In 1973, a common-cross spider named Arabella became the first to spin a web in space, thus providing an answer to the question of whether webs can be spun in zero gravity.
In the 1960s, guinea pigs, frogs, cats, wasps, beetles and a chimpanzee followed.
In 2007, Russian scientists celebrated after a cockroach named Hope became the first creature to ᴄᴏɴᴄᴇɪᴠᴇ in space – giving birth to 33 cockroaches aboard a Foton-M satellite.
Animals in other space research
Although the early animal astronauts achieved great fame, many other animals have quietly contributed to the body of scientific knowledge about life in space. As humans have grown more accustomed to space travel, fewer animals make the front-page news. Still, their contributions are important.
Similarly to how it affects humans, space can affect animals in many different ways. Early space travel was used to examine how ʀᴀᴅɪᴀᴛɪᴏɴ would act on organic matter, outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field and atmosphere. Nowadays, many space research missions involve examining how animals react and learn behaviours in microgravity.