7 Animals that Went to Space

    September 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

    animals in spaceMost people are vaguely aware that NASA would send animals into space during the early days of the space program, but the specific animals themselves are often glossed over in history books. In fact, since the 1940’s, many countries have sent hundreds of animals into space. From insects to frogs to apes, space has been extensively populated by our animal brethren. Today we celebrate 7 creatures that had the gumption to depart their terrestrial home during the space age. They had the right stuff…the cute, cuddly, fuzzy wuzzy right stuff.  Here are 7 animals that went to space:

    The Albert Series

    albert ii monkeyAnimals began being hurled into space shortly after WW2.  In 1948, the very first mammal launched by NASA into space was a Rhesus Monkey named Albert I.  Albert I was strapped inside a V-2 rocket and sent hurtling into the unknown.  Since there was so much secrecy surrounding Albert I’s mission, the distinction of first monkey in space is often attributed to Albert II, whose 1949 launch was officially documented at 83 miles into the cosmos.  Unfortunately for Albert II, though, he promptly died upon landing.  Scientists kept sending Albert after Albert into the vacuum without really knowing how they reacted during space flight.  That all changed with Albert IV, who was fitted with all sorts of medical monitoring systems to see how his little monkey heart and lungs would fair during the pressures of traveling into space.  Luckily for Albert IV, his vital signs proved to be just fine while in space, which was considered a big discovery with huge implications for future human flight.  Unluckily for Albert IV, however, was the fact that he was flattened upon the impact of landing.  The Albert series soon came to a close.  NASA certainly learned a big lesson from these voyages: improve monkey seat belts!

    Able and Baker

    able and baker nasa monkeysIn the 50’s, America was locked in a Space Race with the Soviet Union.  Both countries were sending animals into space, but the U.S.S.R. was dominating in one crucial aspect; their interstellar critters were returning home alive, while America had a sizable dead space monkey problem. Even monkeys that returned to Earth safely would die shortly after, due to incredible fright resulting from the stress of re-entering the atmosphere.  That all changed in 1959 with Able and Baker.  Baker (a squirrel monkey) and Able (a rhesus monkey) were crammed into tiny plastic tubes and placed in the nose of a Jupiter Rocket. The two unwilling adventurer monkeys were then launched 360 miles into the atmosphere reaching speeds of 10,000 mph!  After about nine minutes, the heroic simian duo came back down to Earth.  After they were deemed healthy and fit after landing, they became a media sensation, and even made the cover of Life magazine.  Able and Baker were the first true breakout stars of the fledgling NASA program.  Essentially, they were the Ozzy and Harriet of the space age…if Ozzy and Harriet were tiny adorable monkeys.

    Laika the Dog

    laikaLaika was born a lowly stray, destined to scavenge the alleys of Moscow for the duration of her brutal life.  That is, until one day in 1957 she was absconded by Soviet scientists and hastily trained to endure space flight.  The Russians had been slinging dogs into space for years, and were eager to keep learning more about how mammals endured space flight.  It is believed they preferred female dogs because they would crap themselves under stress much less frequently than their male counterparts (oh, the things you learn with science.)  Anyway, Laika was strapped into Sputnik 2 and launched into space, earning her the nickname ‘Muttnik.’  Today she is credited with being the first living thing to actually orbit the Earth…and also the first to die in orbit.  Poor little Laika died within seven hours of the flight.  It is unknown exactly how she died, but experts blame either heat exhaustion or lack of oxygen.  Today she is considered a folk hero in Russia and around the world, being immortalized in statues, stamps and books.  She’s kind of like Balto…IN SPAAAAACE!

    Felix the Cat

    cats in spaceWhile the Americans and Russians were sending monkeys, apes, and dogs into space, France decided to play directly into every negative French stereotype and send cats. Yes…cats. Dainty, delicate little pussy cats. Apparently, they couldn’t even trouble themselves to find a respectable mouse.  The first cat in space was named either Felix or Felicette, since there are conflicting reports about its gender (very French.)  Felix/Felicette was launched in 1963, and reached 120 miles above the Earth’s surface.  The cat had electrodes planted in its brain that transmitted data back to Earth so that scientists could interpret just how annoyed Felix/Felicette was during his/her flight.  I’m just guessing that along with being the first cat in space, Felix/Felicette was also the first creature to curl up and take a nap in zero gravity.  After its quick journey, Felix/Felicette landed safely back on Earth and was treated to a bounty of warm milk and little croissant shaped cat treats.  Felix’s success was followed by a number of other cat missions, some of which tragically ended in kitty deaths, thus ending the most prolific and successful chapter in the French space program.

    Belka and Strelka

    belka and strelka space dogsIn the entire history of space travel, Belka and Strelka are the most adorable doggy duo EVER!  These two Soviet mutts have the distinction of being the first living creatures to orbit the Earth in a space capsule and survive.  They also satisfied the strange Russian custom of requiring all cosmonaut duos to have rhyming names. These two brave pups were passengers on board Sputnik 5 in 1960, and spent a day orbiting the Earth before returning safely.  The international community went crazy over the hero hounds.  In a remarkable display of Cold War detente, Nikita Khrushchev even gave one of Strelka’s puppies to JFK’s daughter Caroline.  SPACE PUPPIES!  When Belka and Strelka eventually passed away, their bodies were embalmed and put on display in Russian museums.  This type of preservation is saved for the most revered Russian heroes; space dogs, Vladimir Lenin, and of course, Yakov Smirnoff.  IN SOVIET RUSSIA, SPACE DOGS ORBIT YOU!

    Ham the Chimpanzee

    ham the chimpLadies and gentlemen, meet the gold standard for all-American animal space heroes: Ham the Space Chimp!  In 1961, NASA was gearing up to send America’s first man (Alan Shepard) into space.  They only had one question: will astronauts be able to perform specific tasks during zero gravity?  To get the answer, they went to Ham.  Ham was a super-smart chimpanzee from a lab in New Mexico who loved danger.  On January 3rd, 1961 he hopped into a Mercury rocket and left the Earth. Ham was given all sorts of specific sciency tasks to do during his flight, but his capsule accidentally gained more speed than previously planned, thus exposing poor Ham to more weightlessness and veering his vessel off course.  Despite this, Ham hunkered down and completed his technical monkey tasks like a true professional.  He then splashed back down to Earth and received a well-deserved hero’s welcome. His successful voyage cleared the way for Alan Shepard’s historic flight four moths later. Ham lived out the rest of his days in a cushy wildlife refuge in North Carolina and lived for 22 more years, ultimately dying in 1983. You can’t spell ‘hero chimpanzee’ without H-A-M.

    Fruit Flies!

    fruit fliesFruit Flies are the true unsung heroes of the space age.  Before humans, before even dogs or monkeys, the first terrestrial creatures to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God were…fruit flies.  In 1946, while many countries were rebuilding from the carnage wrought by the second world war, America sent a payload of fruit flies into space aboard a V-2 rocket.  Flies were the ideal first living things to test in space because they are annoyingly abundant, and require very little food and water to sustain themselves.  Also, since they are relatively simple organisms, scientists could easily study how they are effected by radiation. These creatures help lay the foundation for sending living organisms into space, and they gave scientists a rudimentary understanding of how leaving Earth might effect animals.  In the ensuing decades, fruit flies have been regular passengers on space flights, right up until the now-defunct shuttle program. On an unrelated side note, scientists have recently confirmed that fruit flies are susceptible to alcoholism, just like astronauts! So the next time you see a fruit fly buzzing around your kitchen, take a moment to salute the little guy…then kill it. They carry germs. Also, you might have some rotting fruit nearby.


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