A Brief and Incomplete History of Launching Animals Into Space

Pretty much ever since humans discovered flight, we’ve been strapping animals into our new devices just to see what would happen.

Over the last 330 years or so, we’ve launched dogs, cats, chimps, monkeys, roosters, ducks, spiders, fruit flies, silk worms, ants, bees, moss, turtles, rabbits, jellyfish, amoebae, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, and one Enlightenment-era sheep—into the air, into orbit, and into space. While it was difficult to choose which of these brave, history-making animals were our favorites, here’s a list of just some of those that made us smile.

The Montgolfier Three

On a sunny September afternoon in 1783, two French brothers loaded a duck, a rooster and a sheep into a hot-air balloon, and launched them into the sky, making that unassuming barnyard triumvirate the first living beings ever to soar above the earth by human-designed power. While the duck, rooster and sheep returned to earth and, presumably, rank and file farm life, the brothers Montgolfier—Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne—were elevated to nobility by King Louis XVI, just a few years before the French Revolution made that title oh-so-gauche.

Albina and the Gypsy Girl

Perhaps taking a page out of the Montgolfier brothers’ book, the folks at the Soviet Space Program were big on strapping dogs (now affectionately known as “Space Dogs”) into their rockets and space shuttles, just to see what would happen. While a number of these brave young ladies—all of the dogs who went to space were female, on account of the space suit design—died in the course of the Space Race, we’re singling out Albina and Tsyganka, which means “Gypsy girl” in Russian, for special recognition because, well, because they were ejected out of a capsule 53 miles above the earth’s surface in specially-outfitted doggy spacesuits, and somehow survived.

The most famous of the Soviet Space Dogs is probably Laika, who the American press dubbed “Muttnik,” and who was the first Earthling ever to go into orbit, although she died a few hours into the trip due to stress and overheating. (The Russians, silenced by the formidable Cold War-era propaganda machine, didn’t come clean about that unfortunate snafu until 2002.)

Belka and Strelka

These famous Space Dogs were the first animals to go into orbit and make it back alive, along with their fellow passengers: a grey rabbit, forty-two mice, two rats and a pack of flies. The success of Belka and Strelka’s journey was no small thing in 1960, the height of the Space Race, and it paved the way for their human colleague, Yuri Gagarin, who became, eight months later, the first person to do what they had done. Strelka, for her part, was a born star. When she returned to earth, she got together with another male Space Dog and had puppies, one of which, Fluffy, was given to John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline as a diplomatic gift from Nikita Khruschchev. Fluffy went on to shack-up with one of the Kennedys' dogs, Charlie, and have four more puppies of her own (“pupniks,” as JFK called them). Belka and Strelka’s legacy lives on, both in puppies and in a Russian animated movie, “Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs,” which came out in 2010.

Baker and Able

In May 1959, a tiny squirrel monkey named Baker and a rhesus monkey named Able became the first two animals to fly into space in the nose cone of a ballistic missile, and return alive. During their journey, these two simian ladies reached a height of about 360 miles above the earth and were weightless for nine minutes. When they splashed back down to earth, they were collected by a U.S. Navy ship, taken to an air-conditioned officers' room, and flown to Washington, D.C. under military escort, where they immediately became national heroes. Their hairy little faces were splashed all over U.S. newspapers and on the cover of LIFE.

Unfortunately, Able died shortly thereafter during a medical procedure, and was later stuffed and displayed at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. As for Baker, she lived another quarter century, mostly at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to NPR, Baker received 100 to 150 letters a day from school kids all across the country up until her death in 1984, when 300 people attended her funeral. To this day, well-wishers still leave flowers and bananas at her grave.

Ham the Chimp

In January 1961, NASA launched a three-year-old chimpanzee named Ham into space. Over the course of Ham’s harrowing journey, the air pressure regulator got messed up, the rocket over-accelerated, the trajectory was overshot by 42 miles, and Ham was weightless for 1.7 minutes longer than his trainers had expected. When Ham’s spacecraft finally crashed back down to earth, it was 60 miles away from the nearest rescue ship, and it took them nearly 3 hours to get to him. Everyone feared the worst, but Ham, the intrepid chimp astronaut that he was, wasn’t fazed. Not only was it later determined that he continued to pull levers throughout the launch, weightlessness and reentry, as he had been trained to do—which demonstrated that humans could perform tasks in space, too; Ham emerged from the capsule totally unscathed and hungry. According NASA records, he proceeded to eat an apple and half an orange.

Ham’s incredible victory marked a major sea change for NASA: if they could get a chimp into space, they reckoned, they could get a human into space, too. And they did. Three months later, the United States sent Alan Shepard into space.

Space water bears

Image credit: Goldstein Lab

Yeah, you read that right. Space Dogs was so last season. It’s Space water bears now. In 2007, the European Space Agency sent a group of tiny tardigrades, known as “water bears” because of their shape, into space and discovered that these tough little guys are able to survive 10 days of exposure to open space with only their natural protection. No space suits, no oxygen tanks, no pressure capsules, just themselves. These incredibly sturdy little creatures are known to be able to survive in temperatures below -459 Fahrenheit and above 304 degrees Fahrenheit, and withstand 1,000 times more radiation than other animals. They are, in other words, nature’s natural animal astronaut.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know

For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.


From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.


An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.


Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.


A busy street in Hong Kong

Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.


Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.


To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.


Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.


The Grand Canyon

This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.


The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).


You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)


In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.


In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.


This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.


A woman at the airport

You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.


Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.


This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.


Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”


The karst peaks of Guilin, China

This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.


Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.


Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.


This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"


Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.


A patch of wild strawberries

This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.


This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.


In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”


Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.


Sun shining in the woods

This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.


Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.


Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.


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