Tribute to the animal astronauts who paved the way for manned spaceflight

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman shows the habitat occupied by golden orb spiders Emerald and Gladys on the International Space Station in 2011. (Image credit: NASA)

From insects to primates, from dogs and cats to cold-blooded reptiles, animals have played an important role in space exploration since the first fruit flies were released into Earth’s upper atmosphere in 1947.

Animals were the first precursors to the manned space flight program. International space agencies relied on a variety of animals to test the survivability of spaceflight, as well as the effects that microgravity could have on human biological processes.

Shortly after releasing fruit flies, American researchers flew monkeys and mice on suborbital flights between 1948 and 1951. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union released dozens of stray dogs on suborbital flights during the 1950s, all before the cosmonaut Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel to outer space on April 12, 1961.

Related: A History of Animals in Space (Infographic) sat down with Stephen Walker, author of “Beyond: The Amazing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Travel to Space” (Harper, 2021), to discuss the important role animals have played in paving the way. space flight journey and how it all started almost 75 years ago. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can find the book on Amazon. What are some of the space animals that you have covered in your research?

Stephen Walker: Thousands of animals have been in space. From what I can tell from my research, the different animals, and the variety is staggering, include, in no particular order, dogs, cats, monkeys, chimpanzees, fruit flies, cockroaches, jellyfish, frogs, moths, spiders, Crickets, turtles, worms, honey bees, mice, rats, snails, ants, squid and, of course, guinea pigs.

And there is one animal in particular that I love, which is the tardigrade. Sometimes called water bears, they are these tiny, sweet-looking things that can survive anywhere. In 2007, a European Space Agency mission placed 3,000 tardigrades outside a rocket, completely exposing the animals to all the dangers of space: radiation, lack of oxygen, extremely cold temperatures. They were not protected by anything and 68% of them survived for 12 days. I mean, it’s amazing, actually.

Some other examples include frogs, which were sent into space for balance research in weightlessness. Honey bees were sent to understand whether and how they build a hive or produce honey in space, and they did. The Soviets sent two turtles around the moon in 1968, shortly before Apollo 8. In 2011, two spiders, Esmeralda and Gladys, were studied on the International Space Station and were able to adapt to weightless conditions and created strangely beautiful space webs to catch. flies to survive.

So a huge variety of animals have gone into space. It all started with fruit flies in 1947 and continues to this day in 2021, with the baby squid being the most recently launched in June, aboard a Dragon cargo capsule as part of a SpaceX resupply mission to the Station. International Space. Why do you think animals were sent into space for the first time?

Walker: In 1947, the cold war had started, and by this point, it was becoming very obvious that the next frontier is space. And frankly, the next battlefield between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, there were many things that they simply did not know about space or how the human body would respond to the kind of speed required to reach Earth orbit.

So to find out, what they had to do was send animals, starting with a few fruit flies in 1947, which the United States launched about 40 miles into the upper atmosphere on a V2 rocket. Then they passed the monkeys. In 1948, they started Project Albert, a pivotal moment in the history of spaceflight. The project consisted of six separate flights, each of which had a rhesus monkey inside the nose cone of a V2 rocket. Each and every one of those monkeys was killed. How were the different animals selected for spaceflight experiments back then?

Walker: As I say in my book “Beyond,” the choice of animal to experiment with reflects the ideological culture of that society. When the Russians started sending animals into space in 1951, they started with dogs because they are obedient and easy to train; they were essentially meant to support the mission, just like the cosmonauts.

Americans chose chimpanzees, in part because of their obvious similarities to humans. American astronauts would have more control over their spacecraft than Soviet cosmonauts, and thus certainly chimpanzees were assigned tasks that involved a certain amount of autonomous action, pulling levers, etc., to verify that humans were too. they could do this in space.

It could be said that the Soviets had to do with obedience and the Americans more with autonomy and independent action, rather as their respective ideologies.

Laika in the Sputnik 2 capsule before launch in 1957. (Image credit: Sovfoto / Universal Images Group via Getty Images) How did the Soviet Union select the dogs it sent into space?

Walker: They picked dogs from the streets of Moscow. They looked for very specific types of dogs: female, because it is easier for them to go to the bathroom than males; mestizos, because the idea was that they would be tougher; small dogs to fit inside the space capsule; and dogs that were light in color so they were easier to see on the cameras aboard the spacecraft. The dogs were then secretly trained at the Institute of Aviation Space Medicine in Moscow.

However, many of the dogs sent into space died during their flights, perhaps more than twenty of them. Laika, the first dog in space, suffered a particularly tragic death in November 1957. She was sent on a one-way mission aboard Sputnik 2, and that’s when we started to see reactions from animal rights activists because Technologically, the Soviet Union did. not having the ability to bring Laika home. It had enough food and oxygen for seven days, but would die in orbit, sparking real anger in the West. He became a true Soviet icon until Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. How did animal participation change as the space program evolved?

Walker: Well we don’t have primates going into space anymore – Lapik and Multik [two rhesus monkeys that flew on the Bion 11 mission, a life science collaboration of the U.S., Russia and France] They were the last monkeys launched into space in 1996, unless you count a possibly non-existent Iranian mission in 2013.

Later [animal] missions, they sought to study things like muscle atrophy and whether animals and people could survive extended periods in space. For example, a mission in 1998 called Neurolab focused on the effects of microgravity on the nervous system. This mission had the most animals accompanying seven members of the human crew on the space shuttle Columbia. There were 10,000 crickets, 12 rat cages, and a host of other animals – it was Noah’s Ark.

One of the really interesting things they discovered on that mission was that many of the mother rats stopped caring for their babies in weightlessness; they weren’t dealing with motherhood. As a result, half of the rat pups died in the first few days because they no longer received food, warmth or shelter from their mothers. How did sending animals into space help pave the way for manned spaceflight?

Walker: Let’s take an example. Sixty years ago, Enos became the first chimpanzee to orbit the Earth on November 29, 1961. His flight was a dress rehearsal for the orbital flight of John Glenn himself, the first American to orbit the Earth, which took place in February. from 1962.

Each element of the Enos flight was designed to test the next human orbital flight, using the same hardware, the same Mercury capsule, the same tracking systems, etc. In order for the Americans to determine whether a human could actually pilot a spacecraft, they tested chimpanzees’ ability to move levers in response to certain light signals, using a device called a psychomotor. If the chimpanzee was wrong, he would get an electric shock to his feet.

A chimpanzee named Enos before a flight designed to mimic the mission that made John Glenn the first American to reach orbit. (Image credit: Bettman / Getty Images)

Enos was the smartest chimpanzee: he could work on his motor skills and never make a mistake. There was one exercise in particular for which they received a banana ball as a reward if it was done correctly. One of the tests required the chimpanzee to pull one of the levers exactly 50 times to receive a banana ball. Enos got so good at this, I mean, a chimpanzee counting to 50, that on the 49th hit he held out his hand ready to receive the pellet that he knew would come out after the next hit. That’s how good it was.

When Enos launched in November 1961, something went terribly wrong with the psychomotor inside the capsule and he received 35 electric shocks for doing the right thing. But something incredible happened here too. It’s clear from original NASA reports that Enos understood that something was wrong and actually tried to play with the system by pulling the levers differently to change the situation, unbelievable.

These animals made terrible sacrifices, there is no doubt about that. But they really helped pave the way for manned spaceflight. More humans would have died if animals had not been used. More things would have gone wrong. Perhaps the same applies today, as we contemplate human missions to Mars and even beyond. But we must never forget that there is always a high price to pay. We need to change that and we have to remember.

You can buy “Beyond” on Amazon or

Follow Samantha Mathewson @ Sam_Ashley13. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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