Animals in space from fruit flies to Laika: A brief history of animal astronauts

Photograph of NASA's monkey Baker with a model Jupiter Vehicle. Baker went to space in 1959.

Image credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center/Public domain.

First published on 22nd May 2011. Last updated on 5th June 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Animals in space

Last week, the Space Shuttle Endeavour left Earth for the final time, carrying banana spiders and fruit flies to the International Space Station (ISS)[1]. They are the latest in a long line of animal astronauts. Literally thousands of animals have been to space[2], including 32 monkeys, two cats, and at least 27 dogs. Many have orbited the Earth, and worms, flies, and tortoises, have even orbited the Moon[3a].

These days, most spacefaring animals survive their flights and suffer minimal harm and distress, but this was not always the case[4]. In the early days of space travel, when rocket science was still in its infancy, no one knew what the effects of extreme acceleration, cosmic radiation, and weightlessness would have on a living creature. As a consequence, many died, including 11 American monkeys, one French cat, and seven Russian dogs. Fatalities became far less common after 1961, when people travelled to space for the first time.

Animals, plants, and bacteria are still sent into orbit. It's important to learn how all types of life can remain healthy in space if we're ever going to send people to Mars or colonise the Solar System.

2. American monkeys

As well as being one of the latest species to be sent into space, fruit flies were also the first. Along with rye and cotton seeds, they were launched into space by the US Air Force in 1947[5]. This was just two years after World War II, and less than 50 years since the Wright brothers built the first aeroplane. The fruit flies were recovered alive, and a year later the US Air Force launched the first mammal into space, an anaesthetised rhesus macaque monkey called Albert[6a].

Unfortunately, Albert died of suffocation before he reached the 100 km mark that's internationally accepted as the beginning of space. Albert II became the first monkey to pass this barrier in 1949. Unlike Albert I, he survived the flight but died on impact. Six Alberts were launched into space between 1948 and 1951, and all of them died as a result[6b].

Patricia and Mike became the first monkeys to survive a rocket launch in 1952, although they only travelled 26 km above the Earth. They went on to live at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.

Between 1958, the year that NASA was formed, and 1961, the year that the first human travelled to space, the US launched at least 18 mice and five more monkeys into space. All of the mice and at least one of the monkeys died as a result[7a].

Ham became the first chimpanzee to reach space in January 1961. After a successful landing, he went on to join Patricia and Mike at Washington Zoo. Enos became the first chimpanzee to orbit the Earth in November of that year. He landed successfully but died of an unrelated illness shortly after[7b].

Credit: via Universal Newsreels.

Credit: via PA3DMI.

3. Soviet dogs

While the US Air Force experimented with monkeys, the USSR Academy of Sciences preferred to use dogs. This was because they thought they coped better during long periods of confinement and inactivity[8].

Between 1951 and 1957, the Soviet Union launched at least nine dogs into space, five of which died[7c]. All of the dogs were stray female mongrels. Females were chosen as they don't need extra room to cock their leg when urinating. As part of their training, the dogs were put in centrifuges, which simulated the high g-force of take-off, and were confined to small boxes for up to 20 days at a time[9].

In 1957, Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The second, Sputnik 2, followed within a month, carrying Laika, the first dog, and the first animal, to be put into orbit. Laika's real name was Kudryavka but the international press found that hard to pronounce and so they nicknamed her Laika, which means 'Barker' in Russian[7d].

Laika was destined to die in space, as no one knew how to bring her home alive. The Soviet Union announced, at the time, that Laika had died painlessly after spending 7 days in space. The truth - that she had died on the first day when her capsule overheated - did not come out until 2002[10a].

Oleg Gazenko, the Soviet scientist who selected and trained Laika expressed his regret. In 1998, he stated:

"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of a dog"[10b].

At least 16 more dogs were launched between 1958 and 1966, and fatality rates dramatically decreased, with only two dying[6c]. The first animals were successfully returned from orbit in 1960, these included the dogs Belka and Strelka, a rabbit, 40 mice, two rats, and numerous fruit flies[7e].

All of these sacrifices taught us that mammals could survive the effects of space travel. In 1961, NASA successfully launched our closest living relative, the Chimpanzee, into space, and three months later, both countries felt confident enough to try launching a person into space. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first in April 1961, and American astronaut Alan Shepard followed less than a month later[6d].

4. French cats and other animals

More countries attempted space flight in the 1960s, with the French launching two cats, one of whom died, and the Chinese launching two dogs, Xiao Bao and Shan Shan, who both survived[6e]. After proving that humans could safely return from space, both the United States and the Soviet Union set their sights on the Moon.

The Soviet Union wanted to better understand the prolonged effects of cosmic radiation and so sent two dogs, Veterok and Ugolyok, into orbit for three weeks in 1966. They returned successfully and, in 1968, the Soviets launched worms, flies, and tortoises, as well as plants, seeds, and bacteria into orbit around the Moon. They were all safely returned three days later[3b].

In June of 1969, NASA launched a monkey named Bonnie into space. Bonnie was supposed to be there for 30 days, but was recalled after only eight because of his deteriorating health, and died shortly after landing[7f]. This did not stop Apollo 11 from launching less than a month later, successfully transporting Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. In 1972, Apollo 17 carried five mice to the Moon[11].

After the race to the Moon had been won, both countries turned their attention to building space stations, where they could conduct long-term biological experiments on all forms of life. The Soviet Union utilised the Salyut program, which consisted of nine single-module stations launched between 1971 and 1982. The first American space station, known as Skylab, orbited from 1973 to 1979. These were followed by the Soviet Union's Mir, which remained in orbit from 1986 to 2001, and the International Space Station, which launched in 1998, and should remain in orbit until at least 2015.

NASA sent the first fish, and two European garden spiders, Anita and Arabella, to Skylab in 1973. Both spiders managed to spin webs in space, although they took slightly longer than usual[6f]. The fish swum in circles with no gravitational force to orientate them, although they would swim towards a light if one were present[12].

NASA launched Biosatellite 1, Biosatellite 2, and Biosatellite 3 between 1966 and 1969, and the Soviet Union launched eleven biosatellites between 1973 and 1996. Biosatellites are satellites designed with the sole purpose of conducting biological experiments in space. Many of these missions involved international collaborations, with the first American-Soviet collaboration taking place in 1975[13].

In 1985, a collaborative mission involving nine countries sent the first newts into space, where they had parts of their limbs amputated in order to see how quickly people might recover from injuries in space. Their limbs grew back much faster than expected[14].

Animals were better cared for in the 1990s, after NASA appointed their first Chief Veterinary Officer, Joe Bielitzki. Bielitzki established a code of ethical guidelines, which states that all of NASA's research animals should experience a minimal amount of pain and distress. Animals should only be sent into space when an alternative experiment cannot be conducted on Earth, as few animals as possible should be sent, and 'lower' life forms, such as insects, should always be used when appropriate[15a].

These may be self-imposed rules, but NASA is also required to abide by the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Act, and the Public Health Services Policy Act, which sets minimum standards for the care of research animals. Not every country has laws to protect animals used in experiments but it is hoped that international projects, like the ISS, will provide a reason to develop international standards[15b].

5. Educational projects

In the last few years, NASA has used 'lower' life forms in simple experiments, which have been followed by schoolchildren around the world. In 2009, NASA sent two species of caterpillar to the ISS in order to see how they would develop without gravity. Experiments were designed for children of all ages and almost 3000 classrooms raised caterpillars of their own, which were then compared to those in space. The space-bound caterpillars successfully changed into butterflies, although their wings took over twice as long to dry without gravity[16].

Credit: via ryanhorndo.

The latest projects involve two banana spiders, and a number of fruit flies and plants[17a].

Baby spiders are being used to see if their webs change over time, as they adapt to their environment. The movement of fruit flies, and the directional growth of plants, are also being studied. Most plants depend on gravity to determine which way their roots should grow. During this mission, scientists hope to find out if they can control the directional growth of roots using different frequencies of light or mechanical manipulation[17b].

These experiments are due to last 45 days, and anyone can download a teacher's guide containing background information, lesson plans, and activities here.

UPDATE: As of 2017, the ISS is still in operation, and is expected to remain so until at least 2024. 32 Japanese rice fish were sent to the ISS in 2012. In 2014, Russia launched 5 geckos into space in order to study the effects of low gravity on their reproductive habits. Two batches of 20 mice were launched into space in 2014 and 2015 in order to study the physical effects of low gravity.

6. References

  1. NASA, 'Spiders in Space - The Sequel!', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. The Independent, 17 November 2009, 'Boldly going where no worms have been before', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. (a, b) NASA, 'Zond 5', last accessed 01-06-17.

  4. NASA, 'Animals in Space', last accessed 01-06-17.

  5. Beggs Aerospace, 'UARS 20', last accessed 01-06-17.

  6. (a, b, c, d, e, f) Burgess, C. and Dubbs, C., 2007, 'Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle', Springer Science & Business Media.

  7. (a, b, c, d, e, f) NASA, 'A Brief History of Animals in Space', last accessed 01-06-17.

  8. Clément, G. and Slenzka, K., 2006, 'Animals and plants in space' in 'Fundamentals of Space Biology', Springer New York.

  9. Malashenkov, D. C., 2002, 'Some Unknown Pages of the Living Organisms' First Orbital Flight', IAF abstracts, 34th COSPAR Scientific Assembly, 1, pp.288.

  10. (a, b) Hankins, J., 20 March 2004, 'Lost in space', The Guardian.

  11. Haymaker, W., Look, B. C., Benton, E. V., and Simmonds, R. C., 1975, 'The Apollo 17 pocket mouse experiment (BIOCORE)', NASA Technical Report.

  12. Von Baumgarten, R. J., Simmonds, R. C., Boyd, J. F. and Garriott, O. K., 1975, 'Effects of prolonged weightlessness on the swimming pattern of fish aboard Skylab 3', Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 46, pp.902-906.

  13. NASA, 'Cosmos 782', last accessed 01-06-17.

  14. NASA, 'Bion 7', last accessed 01-06-17.

  15. (a, b) NASA, 'The Ethical use of Animals in Space Life Sciences Research: Interview with Joseph Bielitzki', last accessed 01-06-17.

  16. NASA, 'Butterflies Emerge from Cocoons Aboard Station', last accessed 01-06-17.

  17. (a, b) NASA, 'Spiders, Fruit Flies and Directional Plant Growth', last accessed 01-06-17.

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