Animals in space: the creatures who paved the way for human travel beyond Earth
During the space race, animals paved the way for humans to travel beyond Earth. Stephen Walker shines a light on these largely forgotten creatures and their often fatal journeys
Within hours of launch, Laika was the most famous dog in history. A mongrel – a dash of husky, a smattering of terrier – and by all accounts a lovable, sweet-tempered animal, she was now travelling in space about 1,000 miles above the surface of the planet. The date was 3 November 1957, the location of her launch a secret missile site in Soviet Kazakhstan, and her rocket a converted nuclear missile – the biggest in the world. It needed to be big, because Laika’s mission was to do something no other organism had achieved in the 3.5 billion years since life began: to orbit the Earth, circling it approximately every 90 minutes at 10 times the speed of a rifle bullet.
Laika wasn’t coming back: the technology didn’t yet exist to bring her home. Nobody doubted that the Soviets had scored a stunning success at the very height of the Cold War, but her grisly fate also earned them the condemnation of animal-lovers in the west. As she circled the planet, strapped and sealed in her tiny, windowless capsule with just seven days’ supply of food and oxygen, the National Canine Defence League in the UK called for a daily minute’s silence, and dog-lovers picketed the UN in New York. What the protesters didn’t know was that Laika was already dead: her capsule had overheated just a few hours after launch. The Soviets would hide that truth for decades.
Today, more than 60 years later, Laika is the one space animal most people remember. The astonishing reality, though, is that thousands of animals have been used – and continue to be used – in space experiments. The variety of species involved is simply staggering, ranging from dogs, monkeys and chimpanzees to tortoises, rabbits, cats, frogs, bees, spiders, fish, mice, ants, crickets, moths, snails, jellyfish and – inevitably – guinea pigs.
Although Laika was the first animal to make it into orbit, many preceded her on rocket rides to the heavens. The Americans did it first as early as 1948 in a programme called Project Albert, in which a series of rhesus monkeys – all called Albert – were inserted into the nose cones of reconstructed German V2 missiles in New Mexico and fired at colossal speeds to the edge of space
The chances of survival were essentially nil, as everyone involved knew. On the first Albert flight, someone scrawled on the nose cone: “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.”Minutes later he was dead after his parachute shredded and he slammed into the ground. Five further Alberts were also launched. All five died. It was effectively a killing operation.
So why was it done? To the scientists involved, the reasons were clear, urgent and morally justified. The US was waging war against the communists. If space was the next new frontier – battleground, even – it was vital to know what would happen to humans in that most hostile of environments.
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The list of unknowns was frighteningly long. Possible health risks included heart failure, blindness, brain damage and muscle paralysis, not to mention horrific cancers from solar radiation. There were fears, too, about what the terrific acceleration forces of a rocket launch could do to a human body, perhaps crushing it altogether. Nobody had a clue. So animals were sent up to find out.
The Americans preferred using monkeys – and, later, chimpanzees – on the grounds that these were close biological cousins to humans. Yet it appears that nobody stopped to consider that, if they looked like us, perhaps they might feel like us, too. Photographs of the primates before their flights are deeply distressing, their vulnerability emphasised by the cylinders in which they are rigidly encased, their tightly restrained heads peeping out from a tangle of wires.
After one 1959 flight in which two monkeys named Able and Miss Baker were fired on a ballistic, up-and-down trajectory into space and back, a reporter asked Captain Ashton Graybiel of the US Navy’s Aerospace Medical Institute how these animals behaved during training. “These monkeys are almost volunteers,” he replied. “We didn’t force a monkey to take a test if it objected to it.”
If space was the next new frontier, it was vital to know what would happen to humans in that most hostile environment
About 50 such “volunteers” also populated Nasa’s chimpanzee colony at the Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory in New Mexico, with names such as Elvis, Little Jim, Duane and Enos. Their handler, medical technician Edward Dittmer, began their “conditioning” by tying them into chairs 1.5 metres apart to stop them playing with each other. He also trained the chimpanzees to operate a machine called a psychomotor, pulling levers in response to light cues. If they performed a task incorrectly they received an electric shock on their feet. The psychomotor would accompany them on space flights.
A young male subsequently named Ham was the first to fly. In January 1961, with the race to put the first human into space accelerating towards its climax, he blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a decisive test flight. To reassure the public, Nasa’s press release stressed that “only animals that are lawfully acquired shall be used and their use shall in every case be in compliance with the law” – omitting to mention that Ham had been kidnapped as an infant from his mother in Africa by animal trappers, before being sold to Nasa for $457.
Ham’s flight was presented as a sensational success but it was riddled with technical problems, and he nearly drowned when his capsule began to sink in the Atlantic after landing more than 100 miles off course. At least he got an apple for his efforts.
A photograph of Ham and that apple was an instant media hit – here was the world’s first “chimponaut” or “astrochimp”! – and, unlike for Laika, there were no large-scale protests. Perhaps dogs were just cuter – or perhaps, at the height of the Cold War, excuses could be made in the west for an American chimpanzee but not for a Soviet dog.
The same story applied to Ham’s successor, Enos, whose name means “Man” in Hebrew and Greek. It was an apt moniker: Enos’s intelligence was extraordinary. He was the colony’s dazzling ace on the psychomotor, his arms a blur of perfectly coordinated action. In one exercise, each chimp was given a banana after pulling a lever exactly 50 times. Enos picked this up so fast he was soon holding out his hand ready for the banana after the 49th pull.
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What impeded his progress, in the eyes of his handlers, was his anger. “No one ever held Enos,” recalled Dittmer. Enos once even hurled his faeces in the face of a visiting senator. But his superb intelligence could not be ignored, and in November 1961 he, too, was launched from Cape Canaveral to orbit the Earth. He was the first (and last) chimpanzee to do so, in a dress rehearsal for John Glenn’s orbital flight three months later.
It was a grim experience. The psychomotor malfunctioned, so that Enos kept getting electric shocks – 35 of them – even when he was pulling the correct lever. Incredibly, there’s some evidence to suggest that he tried to work out what was going wrong and put it right, but the shocks kept coming. After splashing down in his Mercury capsule near Bermuda he ripped off his restraint suit, all of the electrodes and even his catheter, such was his understandable rage. But at least – for a blissful hour and a quarter before the humans arrived in their helicopters – he was free.
It was precisely to avoid this sort of dangerous rebelliousness that the Soviets chose dogs rather than primates, though mice, rats and a rabbit were also used. “Dogs,” said Colonel Vladimir Yazdovsky, chief of the USSR’s animal space programme, “respond well to training.” Apes manifestly did not.
The Soviet dogs wouldn’t be pulling any levers in space, nor would Soviet cosmonauts. Their job was to obey and endure the mission – and not touch anything. This, after all, was the country where Ivan Pavlov had also trained his dogs, conditioning them to salivate in response to the sound of a ringing bell. In fascinating respects, the superpowers’ animal choices reflected their opposing ideologies. In a society that valued the collective over the individual, independence was not encouraged. Dogs would do as they were told, just like upstanding Soviet citizens. They wouldn’t be ripping out their catheters.
So Laika, though the most famous canine cosmonaut, was just one of many. From 1951, the Soviets blasted some 41 dogs into the skies, though – thanks to the programme’s smothering secrecy – the exact number is still unknown. Perhaps as many as 22 died. In the only recorded example of mutiny, one dog managed to run away as she was brought out to her rocket. She was replaced by a puppy unlucky enough to be wandering outside the staff canteen at the wrong moment.
The dogs “recruited” into the Soviet space programme were stray females grabbed off Moscow’s streets. Among the many stringent requirements, they had to be small enough to fit inside tiny capsules. In fact, the list of specifications got so long that the dog catchers became exasperated. “Perhaps,” complained one, “you’d also like them to have blue eyes and howl in C major?”
Many of these dogs were initially trained by Moscow’s renowned Durov Animal Theatre. Their training took place secretly at the Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine where the dogs were conditioned to increasing levels of confinement over increasing lengths of time. By the end, they could cope without protest while chained inside containers for 20 days at a time.
Race for survival
None of the Soviet dog launches was publicised – at least, not until a flight was successful. Such was the state’s paranoia that some flights even carried bombs on board, programmed to blow up the spacecraft – along with its hapless dog – should it veer off course and towards some capitalist country such as the US. In December 1960, one Soviet craft did just that – and was duly destroyed. Three weeks later, another with two dogs inside landed by mistake in Siberia. Rescuers had to slog through the worst winter in years to get to the dogs before the bomb blew them up.They did – in the nick of time.
And that policy might not have stopped there. Secret records reveal that, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space four months later in April 1961, a top KGB general seriously proposed putting a bomb on that flight, too. He was overruled.
The USSR stopped launching dogs into space in 1966, but other animals continued to fly to the heavens. Notably, two Russian steppe tortoises went round the moon in September 1968, just ahead of Apollo 8 and its American (human) crew in December. With the Soviet lunar programme falling far behind, the tortoises represented a last-ditch attempt to return to the glory days of Laika.
Some flights carried bombs on board, to blow up the spacecraft – and its hapless dog – should it veer off course
By then, other nations had also got in on the act. In 1963, France sent the only cat into space –a black-and-white female called Félicette, bought from a Parisian pet shop.Dubbed the first “Astrocat”, she was euthanised after her 13-minute flight; so were most of her 14 fellow trainee cats who never got beyond the laboratory. Another was killed when her rocket blew up on the launchpad.
As the exigencies of the Cold War faded away and after the USSR collapsed in 1991, the ethical justifications for these animal flights increasingly lost support. In 1996, members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) chained themselves together inside Nasa’s Washington headquarters in protest at plans to launch two rhesus monkeys into space aboard Bion 11, a collaborative Russian-US biological satellite.
The launch went ahead anyway and Nasa crossed its fingers, praying for a perfect mission. It was not to be. When one of the monkeys, Multik, died while a biopsy was being performed on the day after his two week flight, protests swelled to a fury. No further primates were sent into space by the US or Russia. A major chapter in the history of space exploration was finally closed.
Creatures great but small But that wasn’t the end of the story. Aside from one reputed (possibly non-existent) Iranian monkey in 2013, animals now tend to be mice, spiders, bees, flies, fish and tiny tardigrades – the hardiest creatures on our planet. Incredibly, thousands of tardigrades were able to survive for 12 days outside their spacecraft on a 2007 European Space Agency mission.
The International Space Station (ISS), first launched in 1998, has hosted a whole menagerie of small animals. As recently as June 2021, a Cargo Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS carrying baby squid, to explore the relationship between microbes and their animal hosts. Perhaps China’s new Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station will soon house animals, joining the toy cow that is already in residence. Like the Soviets, the Chinese also secretly sent dogs into space back in the 1960s, although there have been no dogs on Chinese missions since then.
Today, we have come a long way since those pioneering Albert flights 74 years ago. Most of the horrors of those early decades are behind us, but the cost has been high – perhaps too high – and, while the US and Russia celebrate their human space heroes, very few animals have received any accolades.
Dying in 1983 after nearly 20 years living in zoos, Ham had a burial of sorts – albeit minus his skeleton, which is kept in a medical museum in Maryland. Nobody knows what happened to Enos’s body following his death just a year after his flight in 1962. Meanwhile, Belka and Strelka – two once-celebrated Soviet dogs who orbited the Earth in 1960 – sit cutely stuffed in glass boxes at the entrance to a Moscow space museum.
As for Nasa’s monkeys, a number survived into very old age at the Ames Research Center in California. Leaked documents later revealed that the last 27, some suffering from Parkinson’s disease, had all been “humanely” euthanised on a single day in 2019.
It is an appalling indictment that such things have been allowed to happen, and I hope that a memorial will one day be built to commemorate all these brave animals, just as a memorial now exists in London for those other animals forced to fight in our human wars. It is surely the least they deserve.
Stephen Walker is the author of Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Journey into Space (William Collins, 2021)
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine