The History of Animals in Space
In this current day and age, sending humans past the boundaries of our atmosphere has become fairly routine, as crazy as that might be. Though we’ve yet to physically put footprints anywhere beyond our Moon (not to diminish that feat in itself!), we’re well on our way to seeing humans stretch further into our cosmic neighborhood. Though before we continue to look beyond, we should take a look back at the sacrifices that have been made in order for us to get where we are today.
Let us discuss the very gruesome but insightful history of animals sent into space!
A couple of things before we get started:
A somewhat comprehensive-ish timeline of most animals sent to space by different countries is provided below at the end of this blog post. It is excluding a few things that I highlight right before the table.
I want to start by saying that this is by no means a complete, comprehensive overview of every living thing that isn’t a human being that has been to space. I’m highlighting the aspects I believe to be most interesting.
This is a pretty horrid story to tell. Simply put, living things that aren’t humans have been given less value in spaceflight, and thus you will see that many of these animals die during their missions. It’s an unfortunate fact of it all, but I wanted to give a warning beforehand.
Humans have been sending animals into our upper atmosphere since the 18th century. It began with the famous Montgolfier brothers, who are considered the first to launch a piloted aircraft. They were using hot air balloons, and on some of their later missions in the early 1780s, they decided to take onboard with them a sheep, duck, and rooster to test their survivability. To their luck, this gang of animals survived what must have been an extremely confusing and exhilarating ride. Unfortunately, survivability started to take a downward turn as early spaceflight programs looked to using animals as test units.
The first animals sent to space, considered anything above the internationally recognized 100 km “Kármán Line”, were fruit flies in February 1947. The United States was using German V2 rockets to launch suborbital flights, and this specific mission was to study radiation exposure. The fruit flies were recovered safely and paved the way for more ambitious payloads on these suborbital missions. Let’s fast forward a couple of years.
In June 1949, the United States sent the first mammal/primate on a suborbital flight to space. Hitching a ride on a V2 rocket, Albert II met his death upon reentry when a parachute failure occurred. What happened to Albert I, you might be wondering? He flew on a V2 rocket within Earth’s atmosphere a year earlier, and it is unclear whether he died before launch due to an extremely cramped cabin or of suffocation during his flight. Either way, engineers decided to make a few changes so that the next Albert would have a slightly more successful launch…only for him to die as well.
As the United States continued to send (and kill) many more Alberts/monkeys with a slew of other animals (enter mice), the Soviet Union was keeping a watchful eye on their progress. After some preliminary testing with rats and rabbits, they decided that they’d need a more complex payload for their preparations of sending a human on a suborbital flight (more on this topic later). Enter the Soviet space dogs!
The choice of dogs by the Soviets was a pretty stark difference from what the United States was doing. Using primates pretty much made sense: they’re physiologically similar to human beings and intelligent (meaning they could be trained to complete tasks), which would ultimately provide valuable data for a human space flight. Dogs…were not so much similar. But the Soviets had already done tons of research with them before (think Pavlov and classical conditioning) and believed these dogs to be more cooperative than monkeys. Females were chosen for their small size and more-docile nature. Also, a large factor was that they could easily acquire these pups, at times quite literally off the street. The Soviet justification for using stray dogs was that they were attuned to hardships and a tough life, so how much worse could a flight to space be?
And so the Soviets made their true animals-in-space testing debut and were pretty successful on their first attempt. In August 1951, the Soviet Union launched Tsygan and Dezik on their R-1 rocket to suborbital space and successfully recovered them. It was the first time vertebrates had been safely returned from a space flight, and the Soviets would do pretty well in returning these dogs with a couple of exceptions.
Something I found slightly amusing is the tendency for some of these dogs to literally run away before their flight. The first time this happened was on a flight soon after the one of Tsygan and Dezik, where the Soviets planned to send dogs Smelaya and Malyshka to space. Smelaya randomly ran away, though was located soon after (the flight was successful). The Soviets planned another flight with dogs Neputevyy and Bobik. Bobik decided to peace out and bolted a few days before his flight. The Soviets then quite literally found a random stray dog off the street, named it ZIB (an acronym for "Substitute for Missing Bobik"), and sent it off to space (the flight was successful).
During this time, the United States finally had a success of their own after many Albert sacrifices. By now, the United States had transitioned into using Aerobee rockets to launch their breathing payloads. In September 1951, Yorick (aka Albert VI), along with many mouse friends, successfully launched into suborbital space and landed alive, though he (and a couple of mouse friends) died a few short hours later. Also, Yorick had technically not reached the internationally recognized Kármán line, but instead a locally defined boundary by the United States.
During the ‘50s, the Soviets continued their dogs-in-space campaign and soon learned how to perform orbital flights with their living payloads. Enter the most famously known Soviet pup, Laika.
Laika’s mission came right after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to be launched into orbit. Two other dogs, Albina and Mushka, were trained alongside Laika for the Sputnik 2 mission. The training was pretty gruesome overall. Since Sputnik is a pretty tiny satellite, the Soviets would leave these dogs in tiny, cramped cages for weeks to prepare them for the flight. Extreme centrifuges reaching nearly 40G were used to prepare for launch conditions, and the dogs were fed special gel that would serve as nutrition during their flight. The lives of these three dogs deteriorated significantly during their training, but the mission pushed on.
Before the mission, the Soviets produced tons of propaganda that aimed to convince the public that Laika, the dog chosen for the final mission, would have a nice cruise into orbital space and later return safely. It was revealed soon after that most of this was a lie, and Laika would actually be on a suicide mission for space. The Soviet engineers only had about a month to build the Sputnik 2 satellite, and their rushed schedule didn’t allow for a proper return of the pup. Three days before the launch scheduled for early November 1957, Laika was placed in her immobile hermetically-sealed capsule and would stay there until T-0.
During her voyage into space, Laika’s heartbeat skyrocketed and would soon flatline once in microgravity, though never returning to her standard rest rate. She became the first animal to orbit the Earth during her mission, an insane feat for its time. Regarding her death, the Soviets were initially untruthful, claiming that she either asphyxiated or had consumed the poisonous gel that they loaded into the spacecraft. Later it was revealed that Laika most likely burned to death a few orbits into her flight due to a thermal malfunction (bound to happen with the intense build schedule) of the spacecraft, causing it to overheat. After nearly a week in orbit, Sputnik 2 would soon deorbit and burn within the atmosphere, turning Laika and everything with her into dust.
Another interesting thing to derive from the Laika mission is that these animals were tightly constrained within their space suit to their capsule. There was little movement involved, except in cases with the United States where monkeys were trained to press buttons or move levers. Some other exceptions included smaller animals that could float around in their tiny capsule. I’ll mention some of my favorite exceptions in the notable mentions section toward the end of this post.
In case you’re wondering, the Soviets were finally able to figure out how to successfully send their dogstronauts into orbit and safely return them. In August 1960, the dogs Belka and Strelka, along with a rabbit, flies, and rats, successfully flew into space and returned to Earth, all becoming the first living things to survive an orbital flight. Strelka later went to give birth to more pups, one of which was given to US president John F. Kennedy as a gift.
Alright, well, we’ve been hearing a lot about the United States and the Soviet Union (which makes sense as the Space Race was developing at this time). What about other countries and programs? Who else sent animals into space? Let’s go through every other country and discuss their firsts as well as any other notable launches.
Let’s start with France. In February 1961, the French space program entered the game by sending a rat named Hector on their Véronique rocket. Though Hector played in important role in France’s involvement, it was a different animal that many remember the French for, and it was a stray, Parisian feline named Felicette. She was trained alongside many other cats bought from a pet shop owner, being subjected to tons of confinement training. Felicette launched into space in October 1963 on their Véronique rocket. Like the Soviet reasoning, the French chose a cat due to the substantial amount of data they had on felines already. Felicette became the first cat to go to space and successfully returned to Earth, though she was euthanized a couple of months later for French scientists to study. France would continue to send more cats and monkeys into space.
Argentina entered the party in April 1967 when they launched and recovered a rat named Belisario to suborbital space on and Orion II rocket. They continued their spaceflights using rats and eventually monkeys. As an example, in December 1969 Argentina would launch a monkey named Juan on a Canopus II rocket as part of what was called the “Christmas Experience”.
Japan launched their first animals in March 1995, sending a payload of newts onboard a spacecraft called the “Space Flyer Unit”. The satellite would be retrieved by a space shuttle mission nearly a year later. A few years before a journalist named Toyohiro Akiyama, the first Japanese citizen to fly into space, brought with him some tree frogs on his trip to the Mir space station.
Iran in January 2013 successfully launched a monkey named Fargam into suborbital space on a Pishgram rocket. Though they had previously sent up rats and turtles a few years back, they’d had a failed monkey launch attempt afterward. There was actually some controversy regarding Fargam, some had believe that Iran was lying due to a mix up in released photos that showed two different monkeys. Iran actually released the footage of Fargam’s trip, which is available to watch online today (Link Here).
China’s first animal missions to space wasn’t publicly known initially, only first revealed back in 2018. They had initially sent small rodents in the early to mid 1960s, but in 1966, they had launched their first and only dogs into space on their T-7A rocket. They first launched a pup named Xiao Bao, or Little Leopard, and it experience unspeakable amounts of pain and G-forces that would have caused an astronaut to have passed out. Nonetheless, Little Leopard survived, and China would send another dog named Shan Shan on a similar but much more strenuous mission a couple of weeks later.
Let’s circle back to this discussion of using animals as a direct analog for human spaceflight preparation. This was the case for some of the first few humans sent up into space by the United States and the Soviet Union. Some may say it might be an interesting jump to go from a monkey or dog straight to a human being, though a counterargument that engineers at the time would give is that it’s better than no test at all.
We begin with Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to ever fly past the international Kármán Line and orbit Earth. To prepare for his scheduled April 1961 flight on Vostok 1, Soviet engineers and scientists decided to use a dog for rehearsal purposes. Zvyozdochka (aka Little Star), named by Gagarin himself, was launched into orbit a month beforehand onboard Sputnik 10 with a cosmonaut dummy as company. They successfully recovered her, leading to Gagarin’s flight to be greenlit.
Though Alan Shepard, the first American human to fly into space, flew into suborbital space a couple of months after Gagarin in May 1961 aboard Freedom 7, preparations for his flight was completed before Zvyozdochka flew into space. In January 1961, the United States launched their first great ape/chimpanzee into suborbital space. Ham, named after the acronym of the medical facility that prepped him, caught his ride to the stars onboard Mercury-Redstone 2. Ham was actually trained to do various actions during the mission, including conditioning him with banana pellets to push levers when exposed to flashing lights. Scientists would use electric shocks when Ham failed his tasks. Ham was successfully recovered, and ended up living in different zoos for the remainder of his life.
Similar processes were used for John Glenn, the first American human to orbit the Earth, before his flight onboard Mercurty-Atlas 6 in February 1962. The United States sent Enos to space a few months beforehand in November 1961, their second great ape though first orbital chimp. The United States had planned for Enos to orbit Earth three times, though that soon was abandoned when a mechanical spacecraft failure led to Enos getting shocked nearly a hundred times. Nonetheless, Enos was safely recovered from flight, though died of dysentery later in 1962.
It might be worth answering a question that may have come up as you’ve read through all these animals going to space: has any organism been conceived while on a space flight? The answer is yes! The first instance was during a flight by the Russians in September 2007. They had launched their Foton-M 3 biosatellite on a Soyuz-U rocket with a payload of cockroaches and tardigrades. One of the cockroaches, named Nadezhda, had conceived children during her mission, and would later on Earth give birth to 33 young, making her the first Earth-born organism to do so. Many other animals, from frogs to salamanders, would go on to conceive children in space as well.
Alright, if you’ve gotten this far into the post, you may or may not be wondering one thing: did anyone oppose all this animal testing? Surely not everyone could be supporters, the human spaceflight program was already hard enough to gain support for. The short answer is yes, there were many protests. Let’s take a look at some of these cases.
One example of extreme protesting was during the flight of a monkey named Gordo by the United States Navy in December 1958. Gordo traveled into suborbital space, the first primate to ever travel the high in altitude, though when a parachute failed to deploy (as was the case with many animal flights), he died on impact with the Atlantic Ocean during reentry. The United States gave up on locating his capsule after a multi-hour search. Many animal rights organizations worldwide, including the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, shared heavy criticisms of Gordo’s flight. Many argued for non-living items to be used as a replacement for animals, and saw the use of them as a grave mistake and embarrassment.
Similar outcries were made a year later after the successful flight of Miss Able and Miss Baker, the first primates to ever be recovered from flight. Their mission had gained so much popularity that they landed on the cover of LIFE magazine, and Miss Baker would go on to be a popular entertainer for her thousands of fans countrywide. In response to their flight, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Conference of Anti-Vivisection Societies released statements completely denouncing what the United States had been doing. “Such action as this falls within the category of scientific devilry rather than scientific research…In the name of humanity we beg of you to drop these vile experiments” wrote the League. The Conference wrote similarly, stating “Cowardly acts such as this can never be justified on the grounds of expediency and all thinking people will be disgusted to learn of this latest misuse by scientists of defenseless animals."
This may lead us to a final question: what is and will be the role of animal testing in this day and age? Today, animals are still sent up to the International Space Station and beyond Low Earth Orbit (don’t forget about Israel’s tardigrades that crashed onto the moon). There stands the valid argument that animal testing is cruel and unusual punishment for organisms that never signed up to be there in the first place. But at the same time, if we had managed to place humans on all those early flights…the human spaceflight program would have been much more deadly. We definitely would not have been where we are today, almost sending humans back to the Moon and maybe Mars in a couple of decades or so.
It is also worth pointing out: if we want to limit our use of animals in space, where do we draw the line of what kind of animals to send? If scientists were to send up a bunch of fruit flies on a suicide mission to the Moon, many people wouldn’t even bat an eye. But as we start to choose more complex organisms to serve as test payloads, the line becomes a bit more blurry. Some may argue that we should cut animal testing altogether, whether it be a fruit fly or a chimp. But with this comes increased risk for the humans we send out into deep space. What choice do we make? Who even makes that choice, what organization calls the shots? Should we even continue attempts with human spaceflight if the risk poses too deep? Or should we try our best to make our systems as safe as possible, and hope for the best?
I’ll let you decide.
Feel free to share your takes with me whether it be through social media or through this website’s contact form, I’d love to hear your take on what should be our path forward!
To end off this long post, I’m going to list off some notable mentions that didn’t make it into the main text. Some animal launches that I thought were especially interesting:
February 1966 - The Soviets launch Veterok and Ugolyok into orbital space. They spent over 20 days in orbit, holding the record for the longest spaceflight by a living thing until astronauts on Soyuz 11 in 1971.
September 1968 - The Soviets launch two turtles to circle the moon on Zond 5, the first mission of its kind.
November 1970 - The United States sends up two bullfrogs on a one way mission to space as part of the Orbiting Frog Otolith program to understand weightlessness and space’s effect on the vestibular system
December 1972 - The United States as part of Apollo 17 launches mice to the moon named Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey. They stayed in orbit around the moon in the command module for the entire mission duration and were used to study cosmic ray radiation effects
July 1973 - Skylab 3 launches mice, the first fish, and the first spiders, named Arabella and Anita, into space. They wanted to analyze whether spider webs spun in microgravity were different then they were on earth (spoiler alert, they kind of were!). All animals died due to a power failure.
September 1987 - Soviets launch Bion 8 into orbital space with two monkeys named Yerosha and Dryoma, rats, grasshoppers, beetles, guppies, salamanders, newts, and an item i found random: corn. Yerosha actually freed himself from restraints and explored the microgravity environment more thoroughly.
July 2006 - Bigelow Aerospace launches the Genesis 1 inflatable habitat with hissing cockroaches and jumping beans onboard. It is considered the first private/commercial mission to launch animals to space.
March 2009 - A bat clung onto the fuel tank of Space Shuttle Discovery flight STS-119. The bat most likely died when the orbiter reached high altitudes near the boundary of space.
The Kind of Comprehensive Timeline
Now, for the bit that has taken me the most time to put together: a timeline a most animals that have been to space. A couple of notes:
Once again is this no means a complete or comprehensive list. Thousands of animals have been to space, there is no way I could capture that in a table! For that reason, I excluded most animal payloads that flew on the Space Shuttle missions and those sent to the International Space Station. I also ignored a lot of fruit fly missions, ha.
Despite the first point, if you see any corrections that need to be made or know of any animals that should be included that currently isn’t on the list, please feel free to reach out to let me know! Some of the dates are a bit wonky (especially when it comes to the Soviet space dogs), but happy to make any corrections.