A lot of animals have been to space, including dogs, monkeys, tortoises, and even a cat. But while some had a rather harrowing experience, others survived their missions and had a relatively normal life back on Earth.
The first animal to orbit Earth was Laika the dog on November 3, 1957. The launch by the Soviet Union came as a bit of a surprise, but everything looked like it had gone smoothly. While the Soviets admitted she would not return to Earth, they suggested Laika had survived in space for up to a week before dying peacefully.
However, while Laika did indeed successfully orbit Earth, it was revealed shortly after the launch that her demise had been rather more harrowing. She had died from overheating and panic no more than seven hours after the mission began when a fan on board the spacecraft failed. Her capsule continued to orbit Earth 2,570 times before burning up in the atmosphere on April 4, 1958, five months after blast off.
It’s not all bad news for animals in space, though. Before Laika, the Soviets sent a pair of dogs called Tsygan and Dezik, on July 22, 1951, which became the first canines in space. They hopped into space on sub-orbit, rather than a full orbit, but they successfully returned to Earth that same day and became the first animals to survive a spaceflight.
Tsygan went on to live happily on Earth, being adopted by a Soviet physicist called Anatoli Blagonravov. It wasn't such good news for Dezik, who made another trip to sub-orbit in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa. Neither survived.
The Soviets were pretty keen on their canine astronauts, sending other dogs into space including Veterok and Ugolyok (main image), and Belka and Strelka in August 1960. Joining the latter two on their day-long flight were a rabbit, 42 mice, and two rats.
All of these animals safely returned to Earth, becoming the first to orbit the planet and return alive. Strelka later went on to have puppies with a male dog, and one – named Pushinka – was given to President Kennedy in 1961 by Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka had four puppies with one of Kennedy’s dogs, which the President jokingly called pupniks.
While the Soviets were sending dogs to space, the US sent monkeys. The first primate to go to space was the rhesus macaque Albert II on June 14, 1949, who flew on top of a V2 rocket. He was anesthetized for the flight, though, and died on impact after re-entering the atmosphere.
On May 28, 1959, a Jupiter IRBM missile was used to launch another rhesus monkey named Able into suborbit, along with a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker. They were in the nose cone of the missile, and spent nine minutes in space before both returning to Earth alive.
Able sadly died just four days later due to a bad reaction to anesthesia when scientists tried to remove an infected medical electrode. Baker, however, went on to live until 1984, and is now buried at the United States Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
One of the most famous animals to successfully return from space was Ham the Chimp, who flew on a Mercury capsule on January 31, 1961. He survived his flight to sub-orbit, and paved the way for Alan Shepard to become the first American human in space three months later.
Ham lived out his days at the National Zoological Park in Washington DC and, later, the North Carolina Zoo. He died in 1983 at the age of 25 and was buried at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. His bones were removed before his burial, and are kept at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC for their scientific value.
It wasn’t just the US and the Soviet Union sending animals to space, though. On October 18, 1963 the first and only cat was sent into space by France. Called Félicette, she reached an altitude of 157 kilometers (98 miles) before coming back to Earth after a 15 minute flight.
She survived her trip to space and her return to Earth. Sadly, after living for two to three months on Earth, she was put down so her brain could be studied. A recent Kickstarter project is aiming to build a memorial to her in Paris.
On September 14, 1968 animal astronauts reached a bit of a peak in spaceflight when two tortoises were sent around the Moon by the Soviet Union. They were joined by slightly less exciting mealworms, wine flies, and bacteria.
They survived their trip, splashing down in the Indian Ocean on September 21. They had lost 10 percent of their body weight but otherwise seemed to be in good health. We know they survived for at least 21 days back on Earth as scientists continued to study them, but what happened to them next isn't clear.
Since humans mastered spaceflight, animals have been used more sparingly. China is rumored to have possibly sent a monkey, a dog, and a rabbit into space in 2001, although little information is known about the flight. Iran apparently launched a monkey into space in 2013, claiming it had survived the trip, but there were suggestions the animal shown in images before and after the flight was actually two different monkeys.
Instead of using animals for exploration, we now mostly use them for research. On the International Space Station (ISS) mice, fish, and insects are used frequently for experiments. The mice are often euthanized either on the ISS or back on Earth, though, and dissected for study, a procedure commonly done with lab rodents on Earth.
“All of the mice euthanized aboard the space station have blood collected and specific tissues removed and preserved in orbit for analyses,” a NASA spokesperson told IFLScience. “All additional remains are also frozen in orbit and returned to Earth for additional research investigations.”
It’s unlikely that animals will ever be used for space exploration again in the same way they were in the early days of the space race. For some, or perhaps most, those journeys were likely pretty harrowing. Now it's the turn of humans to be the guinea pigs as we set our sights on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.