During the early years of the space programme, and before humans ever ventured beyond Earth’s atmosphere, our non-human companions were sent into space – but why? In these early days humans were unclear whether we could even survive in space! Information gathered by sending animals into space first paved the way for human space travel. Scientists looked at the effects of radiation and microgravity on the bodies of animal astronauts.  

Fruit flies 

The very first living creature sent into space was the humble fruit fly. They were launched on a captured Nazi V-2 rocket in February 1947 by the U.S and travelled to the edge of space 109km above the Earth. Fruit flies were the chosen animal as their genetic made up is similar to humans. On re-entry the capsule parachuted safely back down to Earth and landed in New Mexico, all fruit flies survived their space adventure.  


By the summer of 1949 NASA decided to launch something much larger into space and chose a rhesus macaque monkey called Albert II. He was the first primate in space and flew aboard a V-2 Rocket. Albert reached an altitude of 134km and survived the flight, however he sadly died on impact when the rockets parachute failed to open. His predecessor Albert I also died from suffocation before the rocket even left the ground.  

Overall, there have been 32 monkeys launched into space by numerous space agencies, none flew more than once and not all monkeys who went through the programme flew. The majority of these primates launched into space were also anesthetised before flight.  

A little rhesus macaque monkey preparing for space flight. Credit: WikiCommons

Ham the Chimp  

One very notable animal space traveller is Ham the Chimp, who successfully launched on the Mercury capsule in 1961 and safely returned from sub-orbit. He paved the way for the first American man in space, Alan Shepard three months later.  

Ham’s story however begins went he was captured by animal trappers in Cameroon in 1959 and was taken to the US and bought by the US Air Force. Ham was one of 40 chimpanzee flights candidates and was known as Number 65. Ham’s name was an acronym for the laboratory that prepared him for his mission—the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center and he only received his name after the mission was successful.  

Ham’s mission lasted 16 minutes and he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, his only injury was a small bruise on his nose. Ham was one for the fortunate animal astronauts who survived their space mission and who’s contributions proved that humans could survive in space. Ham lived out his remaining years at Washington National Zoo and North Carolina Zoo until his death in 1983 at the age of 25.  

Ham the Chimp before his space flight. Credit: NASA


While the US focused on sending primates into space the Soviets were rather fond of sending our canine companions up beyond our atmosphere, as a total of 12 dogs blasted from Earth into space.  Probably the most famous non-human astronaut is Laika the dog who was the first animal to orbit the Earth, although she was not the first canine in space. The Russians had previously sent up two dogs called Tsygan and Dezik in July 1951 aboard a R-1 Rocket and they were the first animals to survive sub-orbital space travel, reaching an altitude of 110km above the Earth.  

If going into space once wasn’t bad enough poor Dezik made a second trip back along with another dog called Lisa, both dogs perished on the return home due to parachute failure. However, Tsygan was more fortunate and was adopted as a pet by Soviet physicist Anatoli Blagonravov.  

November 3rd, 1957 little Laika blasted from this Earth never to return. She was the first living animal to orbit the Earth.  Laika was a stray mongrel dog found on the streets of Moscow, she was selected to be part of the Sputnik 2 Spacecraft launch and it was never intended for Laika to survive and return home. The Soviets initially claimed that she lived for a week; however, this was not the case, it is believed she only survived for 7 hours. She died from overheating and panic when the cooling systems failed. The capsule continued to orbit Earth for a further 2,570 times before burning up in the atmosphere on April 4, 1958, five months after blasting off. Nevertheless, Laika’s legacy lives on, even to this day.  

Laika the Russian street dog. Credit: Space.com

In the summer of 1960 Sputnik 5 was the first mission to successfully orbit the Earth and return home with live passengers. Two dogs called Belka and Strelka survived the mission along with 42 mice, a rabbit and two rats.  Not only did they have live animals aboard Sputnik 5 but strips of human flesh!  

The Soviets used stray dogs on their missions into space as they believed that stray dogs were better adapted to the stresses of space travel and were better equipped to deal with the colder conditions as they were not accustomed to living in a house. They also preferred to use female dogs as they believed they had better temperaments and the device for collecting urine and faeces was only specifically designed for female dogs. Their training involved being placed in simulators that replicated being launched into space, being kept in confided spaces, wearing space suits and sitting for extremely long periods of time.  

It’s safe to say that the Soviets liked to push the boundaries (well… I suppose there was a space race). They sent two little street dogs called Veterok and Ugolyok dogs hold the record for the longest duration in space. In 1966 they boarded the Cosmos 110 spent an impressive 22 days in space. They reached 526 miles above the Earth and their mission focused on the effect of radiation on the body. On their return home they suffered from bedsores and dehydration but were soon nursed back to health. These brave little dogs helped pave the way for human space exploration.  


The French also had their own space programme and they too successfully launched live animals into space. Quite surprisingly they opted to send cats. In fact, they had 14 cats trained for space flight and launched the first in 1963 called Felicette, who had electrodes implanted into her skull to monitor her condition during flight. She made it to an altitude of 160km above the Earth and thankfully landed safely. Unfortunately for Felicette, two months after the mission she was euthanised so that scientists could examine her brain.  

Felicette the Cat. Credit: collectspace.com

Clearly in these early days of space exploration ethical issues were not at the forefront, they were overshadowed by the space race. Those who weren’t lucky enough to return to Earth paid the ultimate price, however their sacrifice has helped humans answer those previously unknown questions and paved the way for further developments in space travel.  


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