Of Mice, Men And Moon: A Short History of Animals in Space

Aug 18, 2020 0 comments

More animals have flown to space than human beings. In the early years of space flight, all kinds of living beings from rodents to apes were strapped onto rockets and blasted out of the earth's cocoon and into the uncharted waters of space. Once they came back, their psychological effects were observed and physiological changes studied to understand the impact of exposure to space on living tissues. Many of them never made back alive.

Many of us have heard of Laika, the world’s first space dog. But there were many before her. Before rockets, men sent animals up into the sky on hot air balloons to see whether they could survive the cold, thin air. After the Second World War, the US conducted a series of unmanned high-altitude balloon flights with non-human passengers, such as mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, frogs, goldfish and monkeys. The first successful animal flight was conducted in September 1950, and involved eight white mice who were taken to 97,000 feet in a pressurized capsule and returned back to earth unharmed after 3 hours 40 minutes.

Miss Baker, the celebrity space monkey.

Miss Baker, the celebrity space monkey. Photo: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

At the same time, experiments were being carried out on rockets. On 20 February 1947, the US launched fruit flies aboard a captured German V-2 rocket. The rocket soared to 109 kilometers above the earth, breaking the 100 km definitions of the boundary of space. The capsule carrying the fruit flies was ejected, and with the help of a parachute, successfully glided back to earth. The fruit flies were recovered alive.

Two years later, on June 1949, a rhesus monkey named Albert II was shot into space, reaching an altitude of 134 km. Unfortunately, Albert II died during re-entry, when his parachute failed to open. Numerous monkeys were flown into space during the 1950s and 60s. Many of them were sedated to spare them the terror of being enclosed inside a cramped spacecraft. About two-thirds of them didn’t survive.

The Russians also launched animals into space, mostly dogs. Before Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight on 12 April 1961, countless dogs were flown on sub-orbital flights. Laika was one of them. She died an excruciatingly painful death when a failure in the thermal system caused the cabin to overheat killing Laika within hours of the flight.

The original spacesuit that Laika wore into space.

The original spacesuit that Laika wore into space. Photo: James Duncan/Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, two squirrel monkeys named Able and Baker became the first monkeys to survive spaceflight. They were strapped inside a tiny canister which was fitted in the nose cone of a Jupiter rocket. They rose to 480 kilometers, survived 38gs and 9 minutes of weightlessness. After their return Baker became a celebrity, appearing on Life magazine and entertaining young visitors to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Her companion Able, although he survived the flight, died a few days later during a surgery conducted to remove an infected electrode. Miss Baker lived until 1984.

Space experiments with animals continued throughout the 60s. This period saw a variety of animals get launched into space. This included rabbits, chimpanzee, cats, wasps, beetles, frogs and tortoises. The tortoises were the first animals to go around the moon, before men did. Launched on 14 September 1968 by the Soviet Union, this pair of tortoises were accompanied by wine flies, meal worms, and other biological specimens.

Able (left) and Baker (right) strapped inside their tiny space capsules.

Able (left) and Baker (right) strapped inside their tiny space capsules.

The first long-stay mission was attempted in June 1969, a month before the first moon landing. A macaque was launched into space for a 30-day orbit around the earth to determine the physical effects of a long space voyage. He was taught how to feed himself food pellets from a dispenser. However, about a week into the mission, the animal became sluggish and his health deteriorated forcing researchers to bring him down to earth. He died the next day.

The last Apollo mission, numbered 17, carried five mice named Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey, by the crew—Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans. The mice were part of an experiment called “the Biological Cosmic Ray Experiment” or Biocore, whose objective was to study whether deep space cosmic rays injure the brain, eyes, skin, and other tissues. The Pocket Mouse (Perognathus longimembris) was chosen because of their small size and their ability to withstand environmental stress. They do not require water to survive and do not naturally hoard food, so they could be provided all at once. They also produce concentrated waste products.

Apollo 17 Command Module

Apollo 17 Command Module, on display at Space Center Houston. Photo: OptoMechEngineer/Wikimedia Commons

The mice were planted tiny radiation detectors under their scalps and flown aboard the Apollo 17 Command Module inside a closed, self-sustaining package with enough food to last them the entire duration of the mission. Of the five animals, one probably died at the beginning of the mission for unknown reason. The remaining four circled around the moon, and along with the three American astronauts, they became the last Earthlings to travel to the moon and back. Because Apollo 17 was the longest of all Apollo missions, Ronald Evans, the pilot of the command module, and his four rodent companions made a record 75 orbits around the moon. Their 148-hour-stay remains the most time anybody spent in lunar orbit.

Once the mice returned to earth, they were whisked away to the operating room and dissected. The autopsy found no significant damage to the mice’ brains, eye retinas or other organs.

By the 1970s, fishes and spiders joined the long list of animals to the moon. In 1975, several tortoises spent a record 90 days in space on a Soyuz spacecraft. In the 1980s, the first newts were spent to space. In a later mission, newts had part of their front limbs amputated, to study the rate of regeneration in space. Newts have this special ability to regenerate lost limbs, even repair injuries to the heart, brain, eyes and the spinal cord.

Arabella, a common cross spider, spins web aboard the second Skylab mission in 1973.

Arabella, a common cross spider, spins web aboard the second Skylab mission in 1973.

By the late 1990s, US scientists had sent crickets, mice, rats, frogs, newts, fruit flies, snails, carp, rice fish, oyster toadfish, sea urchins, swordtail fish, gypsy moth eggs, stick insect eggs, brine shrimp, quail eggs, and jellyfish aboard Space Shuttles. On the last flight of Columbia, the spacecraft's manifest included silkworms, garden orb spiders, carpenter bees, harvester ants, and Japanese killifish. When the stricken shuttle’s debris was analyzed, scientists found living Nematodes from an earlier experiment.

The indestructible cockroach first flew to space in 2006, launched by the private American firm Bigelow Aerospace. They were testing an experimental space habitat called Genesis I, although the cockroaches were part of a separate experiment.

In 2007, the European Space Agency took the hardy tardigrade and exposed them to the vacuum of space for 10 days. The tardigrades made a miraculous survival. On the same mission, a number of cockroaches were carried inside a sealed container, and unsurprisingly, at least one of the females conceived during the mission.

Enos, the first chimpanzee to orbit the earth

Enos, the first chimpanzee to orbit the earth before his Mercury-Atlas 5 flight in 1961.

By the 21st century, organisms had long become routine in space missions. Mice, geckos and other animals were studied to understand the effects of microgravity on the body’s physiological processes, such as loss of muscle and bone, and how sleep schedules responded to the stress of being in space. Experiments on mice indicated that an active lifestyle was required in space to prevent skeletal and muscle atrophy and weakness.

With NASA preparing to return back to the moon in 2024, and in the future, a possible deep-space manned mission to Mars, there is still much to be learned about the effects of ionizing radiation on the body during long space travel. It’s never too late to remember the researchers whose pioneering work will enable future astronauts to travel the vast and hostile expanse of space, and the great service monkeys like Miss Baker and little rodents like Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey have rendered towards this goal.

Related: Honoring Animals Used in Research And Testing

# Javier Yanes, The Last Lunar Travellers: Three Humans and Five Mice, https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/scientific-insights/the-last-lunar-travellers-three-humans-and-five-mice/
# https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/experiment/display.action?id=1972-096A-11
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_in_space
# The Pittsburg Press, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=djft3U1LymYC&dat=19690708&printsec=frontpage


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