A Brief and Incomplete History of Launching Animals Into Space

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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.

June 29, 2012 - 10:01am
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