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06. Animals in Space: A Gallery of Heroes

Phot courtesy of The Museum of Flight - Ham the chimpanzee with one of his trainers.By Richard Wallace, The Museum of Flight

Testing the unknowns of flight has been a role of animals since the late 18th century. In the summer of 1783, the Mongolfier Brothers, the inventors of the hot air balloon, sent a rooster, a sheep and a duck up in a test balloon into the lower atmosphere. The creatures came down safely and, in November of that year, two Frenchmen achieved the first manned balloon flight in a Mongolfier balloon.

Fictional animals have not always been so lucky. In Jules Verne’s 1865 science fiction novel “From the Earth to the Moon,” a hollow, padded artillery shell containing a cat and a squirrel is fired from a cannon to test the shock of such an explosion on the animals’ internal organs. The projectile lands in the ocean and is retrieved by boat. The cat emerges from the capsule slightly bruised but generally fine. The squirrel, however, has completely disappeared! Poor squirrel, the real danger to her life was her traveling companion.

Back in the real world, roughly 80 years later, in 1946, fruit flies became the world’s first rocket-propelled space travelers, aboard a V-2 rocket.

Since that date, all kinds of animals have spent time in space testing out human theories about weightlessness, radiation exposure, gforce and a host of other ideas. Mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, monkeys, chimpanzees, guinea pigs, fish, frogs, newts, turtles, bees, ants and spiders have been astronauts and cosmonauts.

On June 11, 1948, Albert I, a rhesus monkey, was sent into space aboard a V-2 Blossum rocket. Sadly, he got very little press notice for his efforts. Three days later, Albert II, another rhesus, went up on a second V-2, reaching an altitude of 83 miles. Unfortunately, the animal died in the descent. Some sources attribute his death to a parachute malfunction.

On September 20, 1951, a monkey named Yorick survived a space flight. This time, the press was paying attention.

All previously mentioned animals were aboard American test flights, while the Soviet Union was also active in animal space research. The Soviet focus was on collecting data from animal missions to help them design a living space for humans. At first, Soviet scientists worked with mice, rats and rabbits. Soon they switched to dogs.

 The world’s most famous canine space traveler was Laika, a stray female found on the streets of Moscow. On November 3, 1957, aboard Sputnik 2, the world’s second artificial satellite, Laika became the first living being to orbit the Earth. Because the United States and Russia were political enemies at that time, the exact details of Laika’s fate have been unclear. Some sources say she lived for 10 days. Recent reports from Soviet scientists involved in the project indicate she died five to seven hours after her launch due to overheating and stress.

Whatever the real story, her death was always a foregone conclusion. The Soviets never designed a re-entry plan for Laika.

Striking a happier note is the American success story of Able, a rhesus monkey, and Baker, a squirrel monkey. On May 28, 1959, they went into space inside the nose cone of an Army Jupiter missile. Both were recovered unharmed.

The honor of being the first chimpanzee in space goes to Ham. Born in West Africa, Ham came to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1959. On January 31, 1961, Ham was launched into space in a Mercury Redstone rocket, reaching an altitude of 157 miles and a speed of 5,857 mph. During his 16.5-minute flight, Ham experienced 6.5 minutes of weightlessness.

His mission, including a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, was a complete success. Ham’s suborbital flight was perhaps the most important of all American animal test flights. On May 5 of that same year, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the United States’ first astronaut, on a mission that was very much like Ham’s.

France, Japan and China have also sent animals into space.

The American Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station have provided other opportunities for animals to contribute to our understanding of the effects of living in space environments. According to a NASA document, the record for a biological payload was achieved on April 17, 1998: Over 2,000 creatures went up with the crew of the space shuttle Columbia (STC-90) for a 16-day mission. During that time, a number of neurological experiments were conducted.

The ethics of using animals as test subjects is a complex issue. Humane care and treatment is crucial. For, in ways great and small, animals are our aerospace pioneers. For their past work, we owe them an enormous debt. They risked their lives so space travel could become safer and dependable for humans. Although they were not free to choose their missions, they were heroes of the Space Age