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

A 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 1 January 2020 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

In 1947, the US Air Force launched fruit flies, cotton seeds, and rye into space[5]. The fruit flies survived, and the following year, the US Air Force sent Albert, an anaesthetised rhesus macaque monkey into space[6a].

Unfortunately, Albert suffocated before he reached 100 km. A second monkey, Albert II became the first mammal to reach space in 1949. Unfortunately, he died on impact during his return to Earth. Between 1948 and 1951, six monkeys died as a result of being sent to space[6b]. The first monkeys to return from space alive - Patricia and Mike - did so in 1952, despite only travelling 26 km above the Earth.

The United States launched at least 18 mice and five more monkeys into space between 1958 and 1961. Many of which 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

The USSR Academy of Sciences experimented with dogs rather than monkeys because they thought they were better equipped to cope during long periods of confinement[8]. The Soviet Union sent nine dogs to space between 1951 and 1957 and many of these died[7c][9].

The first artificial satellite was put to orbit around EarthSputnik 1 in 1957. This was followed by Sputnik 2, which carried the first animal to orbit the Earth, Laika[7d]. Laika died on her first day in space, but this was not made public at the time[10].

The dogs Belka and Strelka became some of the first animals to orbit the Earth in 1960[6c][7e].

The first people travelled to space in 1961, first the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and within a month, the American astronaut Alan Shepard[6d].

4. French cats and other animals

More countries attempted spaceflight 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].

In the 1970s, both countries built space stations to conduct long-term biological experiments. The Soviet Union's Salyut program ran between 1971 and 1982 and NASA's Skylab from 1973 to 1979.

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].

In the 1990s, NASA hired a Chief Veterinary Officer for the first time and established a code of ethics that mean less animals now go to space, and those that do should be taken care of [15a][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. 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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