Since the very beginning of space exploration, animals have been used in space programmes. Find out what pioneering animals travelled in space, and which was the first to orbit the Earth.
What was the first animal in space?
While many flights into space may have accidentally carried bacteria and other forms of life on board, the first living creatures intentionally sent into space were fruit flies. These were transported aboard a V2 rocket on 20 February 1947.
The fruit flies were launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico as part of a research mission. The unnamed rocket travelled 67 miles into the air before parachuting back to Earth. NASA currently recognises the altitude of 66 miles (100km) as the point where space officially begins. Therefore, the fruit flies are considered the first animals ever to reach the final frontier.
The V2 rockets were the world's first long-range guided missiles and were used by Germany during World War II. The missiles could fly at a top speed of 3,500 miles per hour and strike targets over 200 miles away. Following the war, the US seized many of these rockets and used them for research purposes, laying the groundwork for future space launches. Wernher von Braun, who designed the V2 was even involved in the designing of the Saturn V rocket for NASA.
The flies were the perfect passengers for the flight as their compact size, and relatively light weight made their storage easy and conserved on fuel consumption.
At the time, little was known as to the effects of cosmic radiation on organic matter. As fruit flies have a similar genetic make-up to humans, they were seen as an eligible subject for testing and research. On the safe recovery of the flies' capsule, the scientists found that the flies' genetics had not been mutated by the radiation, which paved the way for future human spaceflight.
What was the first animal to orbit the Earth?
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet Union and US space programmes sent numerous species of animals into space, including monkeys, mice and dogs. However, these were suborbital flights, which meant the spacecraft passed into outer space before falling back to Earth without making an orbit.
The first animal to make an orbital spaceflight around the Earth was the dog Laika, aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 on 3 November 1957.
Laika was a young, part-Samoyed terrier found as a stray in Moscow. She was chosen as the Soviet scientists believed a homeless animal would be better equipped to endure the cold, hunger and harsh conditions of space travel. However, with inadequate oxygen and food supplies, Laika’s death in space was expected from the outset of the mission.
In their training before the launch, the canine candidates were placed in a series of demanding endurance trials and medical examinations. Among other tests, scientists examined how the animals would cope in the distressingly cramped space capsule. Laika and two other dogs (Albina and Mushka) were placed in increasingly smaller cages over several weeks. With her calm temperament and grace under pressure, Laika was chosen. Vladimir Yazdovsky, the leader of the Soviet space mission, described Laika as “quiet and charming.”
Laika’s spacecraft, Sputnik 2 was fitted with a variety of innovative devices to keep her alive. There was an oxygen generator which absorbed carbon dioxide, a heat-activated fan to regulate the temperature and the capsule was stocked with enough food to keep the dog alive for seven days.
There are conflicting accounts of Laika’s death in space. The Soviet Union initially suggested she had died when the oxygen levels depleted or that she had been deliberately ‘put to sleep’ with poisoned food. In 1999 several Russian sources (such as the scientists involved in the space programme) stated that Laika had died on the fourth orbit of the Earth after a failure in Sputnik 2’s temperature controls. On 14 April 1958 (after approximately 2,570 orbits), Sputnik 2 and Laika’s remains left orbit and disintegrated on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
In 2008, nearly 50 years after the historic flight, a monument to Laika was finally installed outside Star City, a military facility in Russia where she was trained for her trip. The statue resembles a rocket that merges into a hand, launching Laika into space.
Animals that went to space
As well as the fruit flies and Laika, since the 1940s, a variety of animals have been sent into space including ants, cats, frogs, and even jellyfish.
To date, a total of 32 monkeys have flown in space. These species include rhesus macaques, squirrel monkeys and pig-tailed monkeys. Chimpanzees have also flown.
On 4 June 1949, Albert II became the first monkey in space, but he died on reentry when the parachute to his capsule failed. Two other monkeys, Albert III and IV also died when their rockets failed.
A mouse was launched into space on 15 August 1950 but did not survive the return journey.
In the 1950s, the US and the Soviet Union launched a total of 12 dogs on various suborbital flights, Laika being the first.
On 31 January 1961, the first hominid was launched into space. A chimpanzee named Ham was part of the US-led Mercury space programme. A main part of the mission was to test whether tasks could be performed in space, the results of which were instrumental when launching the first American in space, Alan Shepard, on 5 May 1961.
On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin (9 March 1934 – 27 March 1968) became the first human to fly in space. He flew aboard the Vostok 1 and completed one orbit of the Earth, taking 108 minutes from launch to safely parachuting to Earth.
The French sent their first animal, a cat, into space on 18 October 1963. Félicette, a Felix cat, had electrodes implanted in her head to transmit her condition as she spent 5 minutes in weightlessness. She reached an altitude of 100 miles and landed safely but was killed two months later so that scientists could examine her brain.
First animals to orbit the moon
The first animals to orbit the moon and return to Earth were two Russian tortoises aboard Zond 5. On 15 September 1968, the tortoises were launched with plants, seeds and bacteria around the moon and returned to Earth seven days later. The capsule and its occupants survived reentry.
First animals in space facts
- The first dogs to return from space alive were Belka and Strelka (‘Squirrel’ and ‘Little Arrow’) launched on 19 August 1960 by the Soviet space programme. Strelka gave birth to six puppies, one of which was given to US President John F Kennedy by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
- The first fish in space were South American guppies. They spent 48 days in orbit on the Russian Salyut 5 spacecraft in 1976.
- In 1973, a common-cross spider named Arabella became the first to spin a web in space, thus providing an answer to the question of whether webs can be spun in zero gravity.
- An American monkey named Albert II went into space on a V2 in 1949 and a mouse in 1950. In the 1960s, guinea pigs, frogs, cats, wasps, beetles and a chimpanzee followed.
- In 2007, Russian scientists celebrated after a cockroach named Hope became the first creature to conceive in space - giving birth to 33 cockroaches aboard a Foton-M satellite.
How many animals died in space?
As so many space missions have involved biological life, it is difficult to know exactly how many animals have died in space. In the early period of space exploration, the processes involved in spacecraft design and production were trial and error. This meant the animals had little chance of survival. Nowadays, animals are still being sent into space, but the likelihood of survival is much greater.
How does space affect animals?
Similarly to how it affects humans, space can affect animals in many different ways. Early space travel was used to examine how radiation would act on organic matter, outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field and atmosphere. Nowadays, many space research missions involve examining how animals react and learn behaviours in microgravity.
An example of one of these experiments was with caterpillar moths aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1982. The moths that were born on Earth and sent into space were unable to control their flight in microgravity conditions and so clung to interior surfaces. However, the moths that were born in space managed to float and fly, sometimes even making controlled ‘landings’.
Why do we send animals into space?
The first journeys into space involving animals were used to test survivability and the potential for sending humans into space. Later, other scientific questions, such as radiation and weightlessness were examined.
For example, worms share with humans similar changes in the expression of genes that regulate blood sugar, but as the former are more compact and reproduce very quickly, scientists can study many of them across an entire life span, unlike humans.