Animals in space: What creatures have headed for the stars?
Before humans visited space, animal trailblazers led the way
The history of space travel is littered with human names: Buzz Aldrin, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Valentina Tereshkova, Chris Hadfield… I could go on. There are, however, a selection of other names we owe a debt to that are less well known. You may well have heard of Laika, the first dog in space, but what about Félicette, Enos and Albert II?
The history of animals in space is fascinating, and at times, pretty saddening. This piece won’t focus on the Soviets’ use of dogs – thoroughly covered here by Duncan Geere – but will give an insight into the global animal space race that continues to this day.
Start small is generally a good philosophy with most projects, and that was very much America’s approach to the earliest animal space missions. When the V-2 rocket launched in February 1947, the passengers onboard were a bunch of fruit flies, sent into space in order to test the effects of radiation at high altitudes. Amazingly, after the Blossom capsule ejected 106 miles into the sky, the fruit flies were recovered alive – giving everyone concerned impossibly high expectations that were hard to meet.
Sure enough, the next animal to enter space wasn’t so lucky. Albert II – the rhesus monkey, not the former King of Belgium – entered space on 14 June 1949, but died when his parachute failed to deploy. Similar fates befell Albert III, IV and V, with each member of the simian line either dying on impact or earlier.
In general, being a monkey at NASA in the 1940s and 50s wasn’t a great career move, with around two-thirds of monkeys dying during the mission or soon after the return to Earth. The monkeys were anesthetised during the missions, though, so their last moments will have at least been less traumatic than they could have been.
Ten years after Albert II reached space came Able and Miss Baker: the first monkeys to reach space and live to tell the tale. Boarding the Jupiter AM-18 rocket on 28 May 1959, Able (a rhesus monkey) and Miss Baker (a squirrel monkey) traveled 10,000mph to a height of 360 miles, in a flight that lasted a quarter of an hour with nine minutes of weightlessness.
After their short spell in space, both monkeys landed in the ocean, to be retrieved by a US Navy vessel run by Joseph Guion. He told NASA: “We still didn’t know if the monkeys were alive ‘cause we didn’t have the telemetry. And so one technician ran up to the back end of it and plugged in and he says, ‘They’re alive!’ So everybody went ‘Yay!’ And that’s when I could finally say, ‘Ah!’ Relax.”
Able’s victory didn’t last long, as she died four days later due to an anaesthetic reaction, but Miss Baker went on to live a further 25 years, finally passing away in 1984 at the ripe old monkey age of 27. She saw out the rest of her days at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, receiving more than 100 pieces of fan mail per day. Apparently to this day, people still occasionally leave bananas at her grave. “She got a medal from the ASPCA. It’s the first time the ASPCA actually recognised an animal experiment,” explained Joseph Guion.
While the Americans were having mixed success with simians, the Russians were working with dogs. Laika had already made history by being the first dog to orbit the Earth in 1957, but just over a month after Able and Miss Baker returned to Earth, another Russian dog mission was about to take place, featuring Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”) and Snezhinka (“Snowflake”) into suborbital space. What our feature on dogs in space neglected to mention is that these two dogs were accompanying the first rabbit in space: Marfusha. All three passengers returned to Earth safely.
With rabbits and dogs representing the family pet front in space, you may be assuming that cats were off the table due to being, well, cats. Not so: the French did their bit for creating suborbital petting zoo by sending a cat called Félicette into space. According to reports, another cat – Felix – was due to be sent into space, but absconded on the day before launch, making Félicette a last-minute substitute. Others dispute this account, however. In any case, the French most definitely trained cats for space travel…
...and on 18 October 1963 Félicette fulfilled the destiny she was only semi-prepared for by being the first cat in space. Félicette survived the launch and return to Earth, and was taken to the CERMA laboratories for a few months of further study. She was then put down, in order for the electrodes implanted in her brain pre-flight to be further analysed.
Not everything sent to space has been on the furry end of the animal spectrum. Frogs have been reluctant explorers on several occasions, but the most interesting reptile to explore space is the tortoise. And when I write "explore" there, I really mean it – while earlier examples of monkeys, dogs and cats went into low orbit before safely (or not) returning to Earth, the Soviet Zond 5 sent a pair of tortoises around the moon in September 1968 – a full ten months before humans would land on the surface. The Atlantic explains that while the tortoises lost around 10% of their weight from their trip, and had some issues with their liver and spleen, they were pretty normal with a healthy appetite. It’s not clear what happened to the pair after this short spell in the media spotlight, but given that tortoises can live for decades, it’s entirely possible they’re still munching on cucumber to this day.
(It's not clear why the news clipping above says turtles - they're definitely tortoises, as the picture below shows.)
Despite this success, it is chimpanzees that immediately jump to our Western minds when we think of animals in space, and that’s broadly down to Ham. As our closest living relatives, chimpanzees were considered uniquely qualified for the job in hand: being the warm-up act for the first humans in space.
Unlike the earlier simians taking the trip to space, who were under anaesthetic for the flight, Ham was not only fully aware, but trained to operate the machinery. This would ensure that humans would have all their faculties about them when outside of Earth’s atmosphere. The training procedure for chimps? Pretty similar to that endured by the prospective human astronauts, according to LIFE magazine: “After curing them of jungle diseases and parasites, a special corps of veterinarians … kept track of their skeletal development by periodic X-ray exams, and gave them regular heart, muscle and ear-nose-and-throat check-ups.”
Ham – an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center where he was trained – was on an initial longlist of 40 chimpanzees trained for the mission, eventually whittled down to six. From there, Ham was picked due to his aptitude for performing manual tasks. Using electric shocks and banana pellets for positive and negative reinforcement, Ham was trained to pull a lever in response to a flashing blue light within five seconds.
Ham took off from Cape Canaveral at 16.55GMT on 31 January 1961 and successfully proved that NASA’s plans were viable, even if pretty much everything went wrong with the mission itself. Computers reported a drop in the oxygen supply, causing the mission to be aborted, but due to another blunder – the flight path was a degree higher than intended – the Mercury capsule with Ham onboard was already 157 miles clear of Earth: significantly higher than the 115 miles intended. On his return to Earth, Ham overshot the landing site and there was a three-hour delay before he was found, with only a bruised nose to demonstrate the unusual day he’d had. At the time, LIFE magazine reported that upon opening Ham’s capsule braced for the worst, the scientists were met by a joyful sight: “first a hand was thrust out to shake the anxious vet’s, then Ham stepped out, burping proudly”.
For six-and-a-half minutes of his 16-minute, 30-second flight Ham was weightless, and his reactions were only marginally slower than on Earth, clearing the path for astronauts to follow in space later than year. Ham, for his part, retired to the Washington zoo, where he lived for a further 17 years.
That’s a relatively happy story – as animal experimentation goes – but spare a thought for the often forgotten follow-up chimpanzee astronaut Enos. Not only was Enos’ training far more rigorous than Ham’s, but as The Atlantic explains, due to a malfunction aboard the vehicle, he was subjected to a horrifying 76 unintended electric shocks while in space. Like Ham, Enos was trained to respond to shocks and positive reinforcement, but the middle lever malfunctioned, ensuring that no matter what poor Enos did, he received a shock – 76 of them in total. The confused chimp pulled at various levers to try to solve the puzzle to no avail.
NASA was astonished by his persistence despite the ordeal, noting that “the malfunctioning of the centre lever, which resulted in the subject receiving 35 shocks on the second session of the oddity problem, did not disrupt his subsequent performance... And likewise, the 41 shocks received during the third oddity session did not affect performance during the subsequent fourth session of the CA-DA tasks.”
When he was recovered back on Earth – again in a different location to where NASA intended – he had torn off his sensors and “forcibly removed the urinary catheter while the balloon was still inflated”. Anyone hoping for a happy ending after all this trauma will be disappointed: Enos died just under a year later of dysentery.
This isn’t a pleasant note to end on, but a fascinating one. Some will argue – as Russian scientist Oleg Gazenko who worked on Laika’s voyage did – that “we shouldn’t have done it”. There’s a real feeling that a country of animal lovers would have struggled to be sympathetic to NASA’s goals had it been aware of the turmoil that its sentient and unconsenting test pilots were put through. Indeed, Ham was only given a name once he was back safe and sound, NASA seemingly wary of the bad press of a named pilot's death would generate – even if they were a chimpanzee.
On the other hand, without the flights of the various dogs, chimps, monkeys, tortoises, rabbits and cats into space, would we have landed on the moon in 1969? Possibly, but it would have been an even bigger leap for mankind without the animal kingdom blazing the trail first.
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