In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, during the early stages of the Space Race, the Soviet Union conducted scientific and exploration research by sending canines into orbit, the United States sent primates. After dogs and monkeys went spiders, fish, and even a French cat. Who says there isn’t life off of Earth?! This post is dedicated to animals that have left Earth for space — some of their stories:
The first dog in space
Name: Laika aka “Muttnik”
Origin: Russia | Breed: Siberian husky mix
Before any human ever went into orbit went Laika the space dog. She launched aboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik 2 in November, 1957. Laika and two other dogs trained on land for space travel by living in contained environments and learning to eat nutrient-rich gel — the food that they (and later humans) would eat in space. According to Russian reports, Laika lived for one week aboard the spacecraft before she died. These reports encouraged scientists and government leaders about the viability of sending humans into space.
The first primate in space
Origin: United States | Breed: Rhesus monkey
Sam was one of the most famous monkeys of the space program. He launched on December 4, 1959 in a cylindrical capsule on the Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket — his mission: to test the launch escape system. After one minute of flight, the Mercury capsule separated from the launch vehicle sending Sam to an altitude of 51 miles before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Sam was safely recovered several hours later and returned to the colony where he lived and trained prior to his orbital adventures. He would live there for more than 20 more years until 1982.
The first chimp in space
Name: Ham “the astrochimp”
Origin: United States | Breed: Chimpanzee
While the Russians sent dogs into orbit during early animal-space research, Americans chose to send chimpanzees instead because of the close similarities that they share with human beings. Observations made during these missions would allow greater understanding of how humans might react physically and psychologically to life in microgravity and upon return. Ham experienced nearly seven minutes of weightlessness during a 16-minute flight. He returned fatigued and dehydrated but otherwise in good shape. Ham’s journey to space was considered a great success because he made it home safely, unlike his Russian counterpart, Laika the space dog. His mission paved the way for the successful launch of America’s first human astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. in May, 1961.
The first cat in space
Name: Felix and Félicette (also known as “Catstronaut”)
Origin: France | Breed: Mixed-breed alley cat
In October 1963, French scientists launched into space a cat for the first time in history, their goal was to better understand launch and reentry conditions. Felix was selected, tested, trained and conditioned, only to escape prior to launch.
After Felix escaped, he was replaced with Félicette (Félicette is the feminine of Felix). She launched on the French Véronique AG1 rocket from Algerian Sahara desert rocket base, experienced a 15 minute flight to an altitude of 130 miles and returned safely to Earth with a successful parachute drop.
Félicette gained fame in France, and subsequently, several stamp collections were created in her honor. The first collection would not allow her to reap the rewards of her fame, though — the stamps still carried the name “Felix” as they were already designed and produced at the time Félicette took flight.
Web-spinning space spiders
Name: Anita and Arabella
Origin: United States | Breed: Common Cross spiders
In 1973, garden spiders Anita and Arabella launched aboard one of the last Apollo flights, Skylab 3, to demonstrate the ability of spiders to spin webs in space. They both spun fairly symmetric webs with variant thicknesses, something not typical of spiders spinning webs on Earth.
The stowaway space bat
Origin: United States | Breed: Free-tailed bat
On March 15th, 2009, then unnamed “Batronaut” found a place to land on the external fuel tank of Space Shuttle Discovery just before it launched from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral. Although NASA inspection teams had hoped it would detach itself during ignition of the rocket, it stayed put for take off and the first stages of flight. It is believed that Batronaut died several minutes after lift off.
This is the second account of a bat landing on Shuttle at KSC, following a bat sighting a decade earlier on Shuttle Columbia prior to its 1998 mission. This is not much of a coincidence — what many don’t know is that Kennedy coexists with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where Batronaut is believed to have lived before his final flight.
Origin: Southeast Asia | Breed: Medaka fish
These transparent fish are ideal specimens for viewing aquatic organs, a study that is beneficial to understanding bone and muscle loss. They also breed well in microgravity, enabling multi-generational studies that can help identify effects of radiation. So, in October 2012, 32 fish joined astronauts in the Russian-built Soyuz capsule on a journey to the International Space Station where they would form a suborbital aquatic research environment.
A note on animal testing as it pertains to space exploration and science, from the NASA History Office:
Over the past 50 years, American and Soviet scientists have utilized the animal world for testing. Despite losses, these animals have taught the scientists a tremendous amount more than could have been learned without them. Without animal testing in the early days of the human space program, the Soviet and American programs could have suffered great losses of human life. These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed. They gave their lives and/or their service in the name of technological advancement, paving the way for humanity’s many forays into space.