Mankind still needs help to explore new frontiers

"These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed," NASA says on its website.

Three and a half years before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, a dog called Laika was in 1957 the first living creature to orbit the Earth. 

The stray from Moscow is one of many animals who preceded humans in the conquest of space; like most of the others, she did not survive.

“These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed,” NASA says on its website.

“They gave their lives and/or their service in the name of technological advancement, paving the way for humanity’s many forays into space.”

Mankind still needs help to explore new frontiers

Cat Felicette represents the first cat that went into space.

First space monkey

In June 1948, rhesus monkey Albert I was the first mammal to be sent up to space in a rocket, on a NASA mission to test its reaction to weightlessness. He reached 63 kilometers in altitude, just below the start of outer space at 100km. A year before the United States had sent fruit flies to an altitude of 100km in a V-2 rocket.

Canine cosmonauts

Tsygan and Dezik in August 1951 were the first dogs to be sent into space on a sub-orbital flight for the Soviets, returning alive.

But the first full orbit of Earth by a living being was accomplished by Laika, a small mongrel picked up from the street and sent up in the Soviet Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957, enclosed in a metal container. Initial reports said she had withstood the 1,600km journey from Earth but that she died after a few hours.

In August 1960 the Soviet Union sent something of a Noah’s Ark into space, including dogs Belka and Strelka, a rabbit, 40 mice, two rats and 15 flasks of fruit flies and plants. It was the first orbital flight from which animal passengers returned alive.

Strelka later gave birth to a litter of six puppies, one of which was given to US president John F. Kennedy as a gift for his children.

Space chimps

Research with Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, in January 1961 paved the way for the first space flight by an American, Alan Shepard, one month after Gagarin’s historic mission in April 1961.

Fellow-chimp Enos became the only animal from the United States to be sent into orbit in late 1961, just before John Glenn circled the Earth.

Other countries join in

In October 1963 France became the first country to send a cat into space, named Felicette. She replaced Felix, who ran away on the eve of the departure. The French also sent up the first rat, Hector, who reached a height of about 150km in 1961.

In 2010 Iran, which wants to send a man into space, announced it had successfully tested a locally manufactured rocket containing several animals including a rat, tortoises and worms.

Mankind still needs help to explore new frontiers

The first French spatial traveler, the rat Hector with his space equipment.

Pushing the limits

As global space agencies work furiously toward propelling people to Mars by the 2030s, questions of survival in deep space are also being explored with the help of animals. 

In September 2007 researchers said miniscule eight-legged invertebrate creatures known as “water bears,” or tardigrades, can survive the vacuum, extreme temperatures and ultra-violet radiation of open space.

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