Dogs, chimps, fruit flies and all the other animals that flew to space before humans did

As we celebrate human endeavours in space, let us not forget the contribution of our non-human friends in letting us understand space better.

Editor's Note: This story is part of our coverage for India's #Chandrayaan2TheMoon mission launching in July 2019. Given that many of us love animals — conditionally and unconditionally — readers may find details of the animals during and after their spaceflights disturbing or graphic. While these details are far and few between, the story is a celebration of the brave and (possibly) unwitting animals that have made sustained contributions to human spaceflight.

The Chandrayaan 2 Mission to the Moon which will take place on 15 July (weather permitting) will be India’s second mission to the Moon. The aim this time around is to land on the Moon and have a functioning rover on its surface. The rocket being used for this mission — the GSLV Mk III — will be modified and tested over the years 2020 and 2021, in time for the Indian Space Research Organisation's next ambitious space mission Gaganyaan — India's first human spaceflight mission, slated for 2022.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to have entered space on 12 April 1961 aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft — thereby kicking off a space race between the then USSR (now Russia) and the USA. Since Gagarin's first flight, there have been many humans who have made the space journey, including India’s very own Rakesh Sharma, who flew to orbit aboard the Soyuz T11 mission on 2 April 1984.

But as is the case with every experiment, even with space missions, animals have had an important role in increasing our understanding of space and our preparedness to venture into it ourselves.

Dogs, chimps, fruit flies and all the other animals that flew to space before humans did

A photo of Yuri Gagarin ahead of his epic first journey to Earth's orbit in 1961. Image credit: ESA

Before sending humans to space, both the US and USSR were experimenting with animal astronauts to study the effects of zero-gravity on living systems, and the safety and feasibility of humans returning from space to Earth safely. Since the early days of space flights, scientists have sent a range of animals into space for these studies. Animals ranging from dogs, cats, chimpanzees, rabbits to even insects including beetles, bees, ants, spiders, cockroaches to marine species such as fish, brine shrimp, jellyfish and more, have been sent to space since the 1950s.

So let's take a look at the major milestones in animals astronauts who travelled in space (100 km above the Earth’s surface) before humans took over.

20 February 1947: Fruit flies in space

This was the first instance of living beings being sent into space. Launched from an American Air Force base on a V2 rocket designed by the Nazis, the fruit flies were housed in a capsule that was ejected to an altitude of 109 km. The German V2 ballistic missiles were capable of flying at top speeds of 5,300 kmph. In an enduring effort to seize Nazi technology, the US seized a bunch of them to use as they saw fit.

The reason for choosing the fruit flies as the first creatures in space was their genetic makeup. According to How Stuff Works, around 77 percent of all the disease-causing genes in humans have something analogous in the genetic code of the fruit fly. Studying the effect of outer space on fruit flies gave researchers a rough idea of how human bodies would be affected by zero gravity and space environment.

The fruit flies returned to Earth safely when the V2 capsule containing the flies broke away and the capsule’s parachute was deployed as it drifted back to Earth. Scientists were happy to report that cosmic radiation had no effect on the genetic makeup of the flies and the flies didn’t mutate into something else.

Did they survive the space flight?

Yes.

14 June 1949: Albert II, the first monkey in space

With the dawn of the space race still to come, the Americans had already sent a rhesus macaque, Albert II, into space on a German V2 rocket. Albert II was flown to a height of 134 km and is said to have been anaesthetized for the flight's entire duration.

Albert II, the first monkey to enter space.

Albert II, the first monkey to enter space.

Did Albert II survive the space flight?

Unfortunately, no. Albert II is said to have died on impact after the rocket re-entered the atmosphere. But his respiratory and cardiological data was recorded till that moment, which established the fact that Albert II had lived in the duration of the space flight.

3 November 1957: Laika a.k.a Muttnik, the first dog to enter space

Laika was the first dog to have been to space. An 11-pound mongrel picked up from Moscow streets, Laika was, after a significant training period, launched into orbit on the Sputnik 2 space capsule. A street dog was selected for this mission as opposed to a domesticated one, as it was found to be well adapted to harsh conditions like the Russian winter.

Laika, the first dog to enter space

Laika, the first dog in space.

Laika had a custom-made space suit which took into consideration her four feet as well as the snout. There was even an oxygen supply in case there was a pressure leak. She was taught to feed on a nutritious gel, which would be her space-food. Nicknamed Muttnik by the American press,

Laika didn’t survive her return to Earth, as Sputnik 2 didn't have a reentry system. This was a disclaimer that was given by the Soviets well before the spacecraft was launched. While she was meant to stay onboard for around seven days, it’s reported that she died within seven hours as her cabin overheated and unusual levels of stress, during the fourth orbit.

Sputnik 2 circled the Earth a total of 2570 times, with the unconscious (possibly deceased) Laika in it, before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere on 4 April 1958. While Laika didn’t return safely, her spaceflight proved that living organisms could tolerate the zero gravity of space for longer than scientists thought at the time.

Did Laika survive the space flight?

Unfortunately, no.

28 May 1959: Able and Baker, the monkey duo

Baker, a squirrel monkey and her rhesus monkey companion, Able, were sent into space aboard the Jupiter C rocket on 28 May 1959. They were housed in the nose cone of the missile, where they spent all of nine minutes in space before returning to Earth – alive. They were wired with electrodes to track their vital signs throughout.

Baker atop a model of the Jupiter 2 rocket. Image: Air and Space Museum

Baker atop a model of the Jupiter 2 rocket. Image: Air and Space Museum

Did Able and Baker survive the space flight?

Well, almost. While both Able and Baker returned safely to Earth, Able died just five days later due to a case of bad anaesthesia when the researchers were removing the medical electrode from his body. Baker went on to live till 1984.

19 August 1960: Belka and Strelka, the dog-duo that returned alive

In 1960, the Russian space agency really amped the stakes by sending 40 mice, two rats, a rabbit, some fruit flies, plants and above all, two stray dogs — Belka and Strelka — to space for a day on the Sputnik 5 rocket. Both the dogs were trained to ensure they could endure extreme acceleration and confined spaces.

It is said that the success of this test gave the Soviets enough confidence to send a human, Yuri Gagarin, into space the following year.

Did they survive the space flight?

Yes. All the animals returned safely, and Strelka went to even give birth to a litter of six puppies eventually. Strelka’s space suit was auctioned off in 2014 for $18,000. Both Belka and Strelka have been 'preserved’'(thank you, taxidermy!), on display at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.

31 January 1961: Ham the Chimp

The Americans sent a Cameroonian chimpanzee named Ham on a 16-minute suborbital flight on 31 January 1961, in a spacecraft that was to carry astronauts Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom later. Ham demonstrated that it was possible to concentrate and work under stress during spaceflight. He was trained to pull levers to receive banana pellets, and taught how to avoid electric shocks. He was the first animal to actually interact with the spacecraft, rather than just be an inert passenger during spaceflight.

Did Ham survive the space flight?

Yes. Ham returned safely back to Earth in his capsule. He went on to live a normal life and passed away in 1983, a good 23 years after the flight.

While Ham is buried at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico, his bones are kept at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC for the scientific importance.

 

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to have successfully completed a space flight, leading the way for future astronauts and cosmonauts to make this journey.

 

But wait, there was another important creature to have returned from a trip to space. The internet loves her kind. Oh yes, I'm talking about a cat.

1963: Felicette, the cat

The French space agency, Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA), sent a cat named Felicette into space on a 15-minute suborbital flight on 18 October 1963, aboard the Veronique AG1 rocket. This made her the first and the only cat to have been to space. Legend has it that Felicette was actually the backup cat, and the first choice was actually a tomcat called Felix. Felix (in an understandably cat-like act) escaped from the launch station only a day before the mission, making Felicette the first and only cat to enter space.

Felicette, the first and only cat to have travelled in space

Felicette, the first and only cat to have travelled in space

Felicette, along with dozen-odd stray cats, were subjected to rigorous pre-spaceflight training – compression chambers, tiny containers, even a centrifuge. Eventually, she was put on a rocket that would take her 160 km above the Earth's surface. She had electrodes wired to her brain for scientists to monitor her vitals. Felicette has inspired a Kickstarter project to commemorate her spaceflight.

The internet and cats, I tell you.

Did Felicette survive the space flight?

While Felicette was normal after returning, she was put to sleep several months after her flight by scientists who wanted to study her brain.

22 Feb 1966: Veterok and Ugolyok, the dogs who set a space travel record

The pair of dogs were sent into space on 22 February 1966, when they began their record-setting 22 days in orbit before returning to Earth. Humans went on to break their record only in 1974. 

And now, onto the elephant in the room.

Large mammals are no longer used in spaceflight research

Back in the early days of the space race, not much was known about what the long-term effects of weightlessness in space are. Sure, animal testing aboard the International Space Station is still a thing, but there's a difference between the conditions then and now. Today, the space station environment is a lot more suitable for animals larger than mice. These experiments, done on snails and frogs in space, holds immense value in studying conditions in humans too. 

There is no longer a need to use mammals like chimpanzees, dogs or cats in space tests. For instance, fish make excellent candidates for studying human genetics. This makes them a choice candidate to look at what mutations arise from space radiation, the effectiveness of medical treatments like gene therapy and CRISPR gene editing in zero gravity conditions, and several more. 

That said, there were some interesting findings from looking at how non-human organisms responded to space. Fish and tadpoles tended to swim in loops rather than straight lines in space. If a light source is flashed at them, fish use that as their guiding light, Laura Lewis, a member of NASA’s Ames Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, said.

"Baby mammals have a hard time in space because they normally huddle for warmth and in space, it's hard to huddle when bodies drift and float. It's also difficult for babies to nurse when they can't locate their mother's nipple,” according to a NASA report.

"Regulations for animal research are more intense than for using people in research, because people can give consent. Animals can't object, so people need to work on their behalf."

However, it isn't all about consent and ethics with animals and space. Animals for any kind of test require daily care, on-call veterinarians, bulky infrastructure and a well-maintained housing facility.

"Housing rules for animals are more extensive than for human children in a daycare centre. NASA facilities that house animals for research are accredited by an organisation that requires proof that animals are cared for in a facility that meets those standards," Lewis added.

As in the case of medical sciences, in spaceflight too, animals were the first to be tested before humans. The number of animals used to test weightlessness reduced remarkably with the advent of computer modelling. Humans are fairly competent spaceflight passengers now, and these pioneering non-human beings are in large part to thank for that.

Find our entire collection of stories, in-depth analysis, live updates, videos & more on Chandrayaan 2 Moon Mission on our dedicated #Chandrayaan2TheMoon domain.

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