The Unlikely Soviet Explorers That Beat America To The Moon


Here's a fun bit of space history for you. The first animals to go to the Moon were not human. They were two tortoises, along with an “ark” of other small animals, sent by the Soviet Union in 1968.

The bizarre story is one of many from the early days of spaceflight. It was an age that saw dogs, monkeys, and even cats fly to space. Nothing is perhaps as unusual as the story of these two tortoises that could (and did).

As the race to the Moon neared the finishing line, the Soviets and Americans were busy trying to outdo each other. The former had put the first satellite and the first human in space, but the latter was winning the race to get humans to the lunar surface.

So the Soviets planned a number of ambitious unmanned missions around the Moon, to prepare for a manned lunar landing. The first of these was Zond 5, which launched on a Proton rocket on September 14, 1968, from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan.

It took three days to get to the Moon, when the spacecraft flew about 1,950 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the surface. It took another three days to come back to Earth, landing in the Indian Ocean on September 21.

On board were two steppe tortoises, alongside mealworms, wine flies, plants, seeds, bacteria, and other life. There was even a human mannequin 1.75 meters (5.7 feet) tall, weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds), sitting in the pilot’s seat. But the reptiles grabbed the headlines.

“Turtles Sent Around Moon”, the Toledo Blade proclaimed on November 15, 1968, slightly misreporting what the animals were.

Unlike other space animals such as the dog Laika, the first mammal in space, the tortoises survived (it’s unclear how long for after the mission). They were said to have “good appetites”, but they had lost about 10 percent of their body weight. “Blood analysis showed no substantial difference from a group of stay-at-home-turtles used as a test control,” the Toledo Blade noted.

The tortoises on Earth, safe and sound.
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