Animals have helped us immensely in making long strides in the space journey. Right from coping with the fear (yes, we are not as fearless as we claim to be), to understanding the impact of radiation to studying the unknown unknowns. In this article, we will be remembering them, and their important roles played.

First step: Balloon flight

In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers from France sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in a hot air balloon. All animals survived after the 8-min flight. Each of the animals had a specific role to play.

  • Sheep: a reasonable approximation of human psychology
  • Duck: used as control, was expected to be unharmed
  • Rooster: another control, as the bird didn’t fly high altitudes
First Montgolfier brothers balloon, 1783

All animals survived after the 8-min flight, which reached an altitude of 460 meters.

First animals in space

Fruit flies were the first animals to go to space as well as the first to return safely. The common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster was chosen to study the impact of radiation, zero gravity and space flight on a living organism.

Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Credits: Sanjay Acharya

The reason for choosing fruit flies over others was their comparable genetic makeup to humans. A short gestation period, quick maturing time and the ability of female fruit fly to lay 100 eggs at once, were other supporting factors for choosing them.

On February 20, 1947, the United States sent a V-2 rocket to space containing the fruit flies. All the flies returned to Earth safely, untouched by radiation. Other V-2 missions carried biological samples, including moss.

First mammals in space

On June 11, 1948, Albert, a rhesus macaque, became the first mammal to be sent to subspace again on a V-2 rocket. The rocket reached a height of 63 km. Unfortunately, Albert died due to suffocation during the flight.

Next, on June 14, 1949, another V-2 rocket carried Albert II to space reaching a height of 134 km. Albert II became the first monkey, first primate, and first mammal in space, but unfortunately died on impact due to parachute failure.

V2 launch No. 47 carried the first mammal, a rhesus monkey named Albert II, into space on June 14, 1949

Monkeys Miss Able and Miss Baker became the first monkeys to survive spaceflight after their 1959 flight. They withstood forces 38 times the normal pull of gravity and were weightless for about 9 minutes. Able died four days after the flight from a reaction to anesthesia while undergoing surgery to remove an infected medical electrode. Baker, however, lived until 29 November 1984.

Able, on display at the National Air and Space Museum

Numerous monkeys of several species were flown by the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were under anesthesia during launch and were implanted with sensors to study vital signs. About two-thirds of the monkeys died during the launch, on the return journey, or on impact due to parachute failure.

The Soviets on the other hand took only rhesus macaques during the 1980s and 1990s. All monkeys except one survived the flight.

First dogs in space

Soviets used dogs instead of monkeys in the early part of their space program. Dezik (Дезик) and Tsygan (Цыган, “Gypsy”) were the first dogs to make a sub-orbital flight on 15 August 1951. Both were recovered safely, reaching an altitude of 110 km.

On 3 November 1957 Laika, became the first Earth-born creature (other than microbes) to orbit the Earth. Laika died by the fourth circuit of flight from overheating.

Belka and Strelka, two dogs were sent to space aboard Sputnik 5 on 19 August 1960. They are the first higher-living organisms to survive orbit in outer space. Along with the dogs, a grey rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, flies and several plants and fungi were also sent. All of them survived.

First chimpanzee in space

On 31 January 1961, the US sent Ham, a chimpanzee into sub-orbital space with the Redstone rocket. Ham was trained to pull levers to receive rewards of banana pellets and avoid electric shocks. His flight was significant in the sense that it showed the ability to perform tasks during spaceflight.

Ham, a chimpanzee, became the first great ape in space during his January 31, 1961, suborbital flight aboard Mercury-Redstone 2

Just 3 months later, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space, in May 1961.

A few months later, Enos became the first and only chimpanzee to reach orbit on 29 November 1961, in another Mercury capsule, on an Atlas rocket.

Enos, the third great ape and only chimpanzee to orbit the Earth, being prepared for launch on Mercury-Atlas 5 (November 29, 1961)

Ethics of animal testing

This article wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about how ethical it is to use animals for such purposes. Given the fact that a large percentage of animals died during or immediately after the flight. During the Soviet–U.S. Space Race and the cold war, this issue was completely overshadowed and went unaddressed.

While one can understand the cases where deaths occurred due to accidents and unexpected failures of parachutes, there are cases like the one of Laika, where it was known before the flight that her death was certain.

What are your thoughts on this? Animal testing is used in a wide variety of fields. How should one approach towards this. How much should or shouldn’t be allowed? Share your thoughts in comments below.

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