It seems inevitable that the next major story we will hear about space exploration will be that a person has finally set foot on Mars, or that a group of passengers successfully completed a recreational orbit around the Earth. Space travel has a way of capturing our imagination and inspiring us to continue reaching for the stars.
The allure of the Universe has been studied for hundreds of years, and yet there is still so much we don’t know and all most all of it yet left to explore.
Long before Neil Armstrong famously quipped, “One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind,” as he bounced along the surface of the Moon, scientists were sending animals into space to help humans pave our way there. Dating as far back as the 1940s, the science community has studied the effects of radiation exposure at high altitudes on fruit flies.
In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in a hot air balloon to first understand if ground-based animals can survive the trip. From there, many more experiments occurred to slowly help us understand the atmosphere and what might lay beyond.
Primates in Space
Probably some of the most famous animals to ever leave Earth’s atmosphere are monkeys.
Albert was a rhesus monkey that was the first primate launched into space by the United States in 1948. He flew aboard a V2 rocket and made it to 39 miles above the Earth’s surface, a sub-space altitude. Sadly, the first Albert did not survive his flight, but he did pave the way for many other simians to soar to new heights.
Back then, it was unknown how the human body would respond to spaceflight. Each one provided vital information that would help scientists understand how humans could survive space travel.
The first successful mission for monkeys in space occurred in 1959 when a rhesus monkey named Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker returned safely in a Jupiter rocket. They made it to 300 miles above the Earth’s surface. This finally allowed scientists to test flights on chimpanzees, which are larger and more closely related to humans.
In 1961, Ham the chimp returned from a 157 mile trip lasting 16.5 minutes unharmed. The same year, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space and complete a suborbital flight.
Another famous chimp named Enos successfully orbited Earth in November of 1961, which led to John Glenn’s historic flight the following year.
Fortunately, once pioneering humans like Shepard and Glenn returned safely to Earth, the need to send primates into Space faded. These days, most monkeys are perfectly happy to keep their feet on the ground!
During the years that the US was launching primates into orbit, we were furiously racing the Soviet Union, who seemed to be one step ahead. Instead of monkeys, the Soviets were sending dogs into space. They opted to choose dogs because they determined that they would be easier to control through the process.
The most famous of such canines was Laika, who shocked the world by being launched into space on November 3, 1957. She was the first animal to orbit Earth.
Laika had humble beginnings as a mixed-breed dog that was rescued from the streets of Moscow as a stray. Sadly, Laika did not return from her trip. But she did make it possible for the Soviet Union to be the first nation to successfully orbit the Earth.
Laika’s success led to two more dogs, Belka and Strelka, to be launched into space in 1960. They were able to return with their tails wagging. Strelka went on to have a romance with Pushok, another Soviet canine who participated in ground-based experiments. Together they had a litter of six puppies. One of which was presented to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Animals and Experiments in Space
As space travel continued to evolve over time, so did the role of animals. By 1970, many of the animals that were sent into orbit were being studied by scientists and performing specific experiments.
Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, not only made a successful flight. He was also trained to interact with the machinery inside the rocket. He would receive banana pellets from pulling levers and avoiding electric shocks within the capsule.
In 1970, bullfrogs were sent on a one-way flight into orbit to better understand the effects of motion sickness while in space. A few years later, spiders were sent so that scientists could see how space travel impacted their ability to spin webs. They found that they could spin relatively symmetrical webs, but the thickness of the strands varied, which does not happen with earthbound spiders.
In 2003, over 2,000 animals spent 16 days in space with the seven-member crew of the Columbia. They engaged in neurological testing during that time. Some of the animals that made that flight included garden spiders, ants, and silkworms. Sadly, the tragic end of that mission is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it. An unexpected discovery that came from the disaster, however, was that the nematodes (also called roundworms) that were on the flight miraculously survived. This became a significant discovery, and the ability of these creatures to withstand extreme heat is still studied today.
In 2007, an amazing discovery was made when microscopic creatures called tardigrades actually survived a 10-day exposure to open space. While they were previously known to survive in extreme conditions, scientists were stunned by their ability to endure cosmic rays, freezing temperatures, and the vacuum of space. One of the most remarkable things discovered about this creature is its ability to put its body into a stasis, preventing it from aging. While it may seem like science fiction, scientists look to this ability to help them find ways to keep humans young and healthy on years-long missions to neighboring planets one day.
In more recent years, mice have taken an important role in studying the effects of space on the body. In 2014, several mice were flown to the International Space Station to study how longer-duration space flights affect muscles, nerves, the heart, and other bodily systems.
As recently as 2019, NASA began a series of experiments sending 40 genetically modified mice into space to investigate the effects space travel has on muscle growth.
Human astronauts have experienced muscle loss in microgravity, along with skeletal atrophy. This leads to heart disease and osteoporosis and is caused by the effects of a protein called myostatin. Scientists opted to modify these “Mighty Mice” with an inhibitor of this protein and will compare them to a control group of 40 mice that remain on Earth. There is hope that beyond benefiting astronauts, this treatment could help patients recovering from hip surgery, the elderly, and ICU patients.
We all remember the names of the famous, pioneering astronauts that have literally touched the sky. They capture our sense of wonder and imagination. Although the animals that came before them aren’t all as famous or celebrated, scientists would not be able to make spaceflight safe for humans without their sacrifices and quiet bravery. They provide us with knowledge, data, and insight needed to bring us one step closer to reaching the stars.