Animals in Space

Ham the chimpanzee was one of many animals sent into space

On this day – February 20 – in 1947, the United States loaded several fruit flies onto a captured German V-2 rocket and launched it from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The purpose was to explore the effects of radiation exposure on living things at very high altitudes. In just over three minutes, the rocket reached 100 km above sea level, the imaginary line commonly used to demarcate the point where the Earth’s atmosphere meets outer space. These flies (insectonauts?) therefore became the first living animals to leave our planet.

The fact that animals were sent into space long before humans is hardly surprising. Space agencies were keen to test the survivability of spaceflight on various organisms before committing to sending Homo sapiens into the heavens. This early experiment with the fruit flies was considered a success – they were recovered alive and well when their landing capsule later parachuted back down to the ground – so it wasn’t long before research moved on to more advanced animals. Primates, being closely related to us, were an obvious choice.

Animal Astronauts

The first primate to successfully travel into space was a rhesus monkey named Albert II in 1949 (his predecessor, Albert I, had suffocated before reaching the barrier where outer space starts). Albert II was anaesthetized for the flight and implanted with sensors to measure his vital signs. Sadly, he also perished, this time on the return journey when the parachute on the landing capsule failed to open. Several other monkeys gave their lives to the cause over the next decade or so. Albert III, for example, was killed when the rocket he was on exploded before reaching space, while Albert IV died on impact after yet another parachute failure.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the USA finally recovered primates alive after a spaceflight [1]. A rhesus monkey named Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker reached an altitude of 483 km and were retrieved unharmed. Able died a few days later during an operation to remove an infected medical electrode from under her skin, but Baker lived for another 25 years after her mission to the stars. When she finally died in 1984, due to kidney failure, she had attained the record for the oldest living squirrel monkey.

Miss Baker the squirrel monkey pictured next to a model of the rocket she rode into space
This is Miss Baker the squirrel monkey, pictured next to a model of the rocket she rode into space. After her mission, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine and became something of a celebrity.
Image Source: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Another major animal astronaut was Ham the chimpanzee (seen in the image at the top of the article). On 31 January 1961, Ham became the first hominid launched into space, beating the first human, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, by just 10 weeks. The ‘winner’ of 40 chimp flight candidates, No. 65 (as he was then known) underwent years of training so that he could push levers in space because scientists wanted to see whether tasks could be performed in zero gravity just as efficiently as on Earth. During his mission, the chimp pushed the levers almost as fast as he had in the laboratory and in doing so became the first animal in space to actually interact with the vessel rather than simply ride in it.

The capsule containing No. 65 returned to Earth and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, but the chimp was apparently uninjured apart from a bruised nose. Upon his successful return, he was renamed Ham (an acronym for the lab which prepared him for his mission – the Holloman Aeropsace Medical Centre) and he went on to live for another 17 years at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. as retirement. 

A chimpanzee named Enos being prepared for his space mission in 1961
This photograph shows a chimpanzee named Enos being prepared for launch on Mercury-Atlas 5 on 29 November 1961. Although he had received significant training, he was selected for the flight only three days before its launch.

So far, the animals we’ve looked at were launched into space by the USA. But another world superpower of the time was interested in exploring the universe beyond our planet: the Soviet Union. They had been sending dogs into space since 1951, the first two of which, Tsygan and Dezik, became the first living higher organisms successfully recovered from spaceflight, long before Miss Baker. But it wasn’t enough to simply send an animal into space anymore. To beat the US, the Soviet Union needed to go further than that – they needed to send an animal into full orbit around the planet.

The Canine Cosmonaut

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. It became the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. Almost exactly one month later, on November 3, Sputnik 2 was launched – and this time, much to the envy of the United States, there was a passenger on-board. This three-year-old dog, initially found as a stray on the streets of Moscow, became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. She was nicknamed Laika, a Russian word for several breeds of dog similar to the husky (its literal translation is ‘barker’). American reporters dubbed her ‘Muttnik’.

However, Sputnik 2 was something of a rush job, being designed and built in less than four weeks. There wasn’t time to work out a re-entry strategy. Unfortunately for Laika, the voyage had never been envisioned as a return journey; Soviet scientists planned to euthanise their canine cosmonaut with a poisoned serving of food before her oxygen supply ran out.

After Sputnik 2 was launched, the Soviet government maintained that Laika was still alive for several days, up until November 12. And for many years, they gave conflicting statements saying that she had died from asphyxia, or that she had been euthanised prior to oxygen depletion. But in reality, Laika had died five to seven hours into the flight. Only in 2002 was the true cause of her death made public: she had died by the fourth orbit of the Earth from overheating after a technical malfunction. One of the scientists behind the Sputnik 2 mission, Dimitri Malashenkov, later revealed that it simply hadn’t been possible to create a reliable temperature control system in such a limited time span.

Over five months after its launch, on 14 April 1958, after 2,570 orbits of the planet, Sputnik 2 – and Laika’s remains – disintegrated when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere [2].

The ethical issues raised by sending an animal into space knowing fully well that it would not survive the journey went largely unaddressed in the Soviet Union, where the media focused instead on the much more ‘important’ issue of the competition between the USSR and the US for supremacy in spaceflight capability. But in other parts of the world, the health and retrieval of Laika – or lack thereof – caused some controversy. There were demonstrations outside the United Nations in New York, animal rights groups called on members of the public to protest at Soviet embassies, and the National Canine Defence League (which would later become known as Dogs Trust) called on all dog owners in the UK to observe a minute’s silence.

A 1959 Romanian stamp
Soviet artists celebrated Laika and her epic voyage in posters, postcards and stamps, such as this Romanian stamp from 1959. The caption at the top of the stamp reads ‘Laika, first traveller into cosmos’.

The gap between the first human in space and the first human on the moon was just eight years – and after Apollo 11’s famous moon landing in 1969, animals in space no longer made the headlines as they once did. Nevertheless, animals continue to be blasted into orbit and, even today, they play an important role in understanding the impact of microgravity on many biological functions.

Most people accept that sending animals into space was essential for the preparation of manned spaceflight. They were used to test the safety and feasibility of launching a living thing into space and bringing it back unharmed. But Laika was launched into space simply to achieve a world first. Yes, it is true that several other animals have perished on their space journeys, both before and after Laika, but at least the intention to bring them back alive was there. Laika’s death was set in stone long before she was loaded onto the spacecraft. There was never any doubt that she would die on her voyage, alone and scared, hundreds of kilometres above the surface of the Earth.

So was Laika’s death a noble one, justifiable in the name of human progress? Or was it an unnecessary and cruelly exploitative one? Either way, more than 60 years after she died, Laika’s story lives on and she has rightly taken her place in the pantheon of space explorers.


[1] A rhesus monkey named Albert VI had previously survived his 1951 flight, but it only reached an altitude of 72 km – below the generally accepted 100 km boundary demarcating outer space. And even then, the monkey died a couple of hours after returning to Earth, probably related to stress from overheating in the sealed capsule in the New Mexico sun while awaiting the recovery team.

[2] After Laika, the Soviet Union sent more dogs into space. Two of them, Belka and Strelka, were aboard Sputnik 5, which launched on 19 August 1960. They became (along with the mice, rats, flies and single rabbit that accompanied them) the first animals to orbit the planet and return alive.

Author

  • With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

1 thought on “Animals in Space”

  1. I am glad these amazing animals are remembered anyway. Even despite the cruelty of the world they were living in. I am glad that in some ways standards have got better for many animals and that this wouldn’t be acceptable to do now.

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