We all know Laika the dog and maybe Ham the chimpanzee but the entire pantheon of animals that have been to space is surprisingly vast. Everything from cats to worms to fish to newts to spiders have been flown in space to test the effect of space and zero gravity on life forms. Here is my best attempt to catalogue all of them.
On March 15, 2009, during launch preparations for STS-119, a free-tailed bat, injured and frightened, latched on to the foam insulation of Space Shuttle Discovery’s fuel tank.
It clearly had no idea what was going to happen next.
As the solid rocket boosters roared to life, ground control noticed the little dark spot against the orange fuel tank, but it was too late to do anything about it. As the shuttle lifted off the pad, they watched the intrepid bat hold on for dear life, rising higher and higher into the atmosphere.
They never saw this bat fall off of the fuel tank, it’s very possible that it did, but the general belief is that the bat hung on until it eventually ran out of oxygen, slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and echolocated the face of God.
Space Bat, as it came to be known, spawned millions of memes and drawings all across the internet. This plucky cave dweller who went out on the wildest ride any bat has ever experienced touched the hearts of nerds around the world.
There have actually been a lot of animals that have gone into space over the years. Space Bat’s the only one that did it by choice.
The Story of Laika
So I thought it would be cool to do a video where I look at all the animals that have gone to space, we all know about some of the animals that went up in the early days when they were testing and stuff, I thought it would be cool to tell their stories. And there were two things that I learned looking into this.
One, there have been a LOT of animals in space. Like, it’s impossible to get an accurate number so while I did my best to make a complete list, some of it’s going to have to be estimates. For reasons I’ll get into.
And second… This is going to be a much sadder video than I set out to make.
Yeah, a lot of these animals didn’t make it. So if you’re an animal lover, which I consider myself to be an animal lover, this might not be the easiest video to get through.
The goal here is of course to celebrate the lives of these animals and not dwell on the bad stuff but still. Consider that a content warning I guess.
Humans have been using animals to test aerospace vehicles from the very beginning. You might remember from my airships video, the Montgolflier brothers tested their first balloon with a duck, and chicken, and a sheep on board.
So of course before we put people into space, we did it first with animals, the most famous of which was Laika the dog.
Laika was literally a stray on the streets of Moscow when she was found in 1957. She was about three years old, possibly a husky-terrier mix, and she was one of many stray dogs that were brought in based on their size and temperament.
Being that this was going to be a one-way trip, they probably assumed that finding stray dogs would be easier than asking someone to give up their pet dog.
Through the training process with these dogs Laika kinda rose to the top by being the easiest to work with, most calm and compliant in the little capsule they built, and eventually got picked for the Sputnik 2 mission.
By the way, her name wasn’t originally Laika. They called her “Little Curly” at first. But during a radio interview with one of the scientists working with her, she went into a bit of a barking fit in the background. After that, they started calling her Laika. Laika means “barker” in Russian.
They trained her by getting her used to smaller and smaller compartments, and the idea was they would feed her through an automated feeding device for about a week until her oxygen ran out.
The trainer later confessed that he took her home with him the night before, just to play with her and give her a nice send off.
Sputnik 2 with Laika on board launched on November 3, 1957 on board an intercontinental ballistic missile. Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth, and her image and name were printed on the front pages of newspapers around the world. She was and still is one of the most famous dogs of all time.
Sadly, the story of her eating kibble for a week while she zoomed around the world was a lie. 50 years later, reports came out that in fact, she died within hours of reaching orbit.
The cause of death was overheating. The cause of the lie was the space race. A month earlier, Russia had shocked the world by sending Sputnik 1 to orbit, and they weren’t about to lose face over a dog.
So yeah, like I said before, it’s tragic, but Laika paved the way for human habitation of space. There’s a monument for her in Moscow and she’s included on the monument for lost Cosmonauts at Star City.
But Laika was not, technically, the first animal we put in space. That distinction goes to some fruit flies.
Flies in Space
Way back in 1947, scientists wanted to know what cosmic radiation would do to DNA. So, they took a V-2 rocket that they acquired from Germany after the war and put a little compartment of fruit flies on it.
The reason they went with fruit flies, technical term Drosophila melanogaster, was because just a year before, Hermann Joseph Muller had won the Nobel Prize for discovering how to mutate the flies with x-rays.
So why not see if the same thing would happen with cosmic rays?
On February 20th 1947, the flies were launched past the Kármán line and parachuted back to Earth. They made it down without incident.
Anyway, it turned out radiation was mostly harmless to fruit flies. Or so it seemed. Later studies showed higher levels of genetic mutations, as well as impaired immune systems.
How they tested these fly’s immune systems, I don’t know. Maybe tiny masks were involved.
But yeah, fruit flies were aerospace pioneers. They weren’t the last either, many fruit fly experiments have gone to space. In fact, there’s a fruit fly lab on the International Space Station right now with thousands of test subjects.
Fruit flies are used in biological and genetic tests all the time because they reproduce quickly so you can see generational changes in a short amount of time. So it’s not really any surprise that they’d be used in biological tests in space.
After the successful fruit fly launch, scientists decided to make a significant jump up in scale, and in June 1948, a monkey was sent to space. Almost.
It was a nine-pound (4.08kg) rhesus monkey named Albert. This one fell a bit short, reaching just 63 kilometers. Which is sad.
One year later they tried again with his successor, cleverly named Albert II.
On June 14, 1949, Albert II launched aboard a V2 in a roomier capsule. His launch vehicle reached 133 kilometers, making him the first primate in space.
But on descent, the parachute failed to open. And Albert II was killed on impact.
The good news was that the health monitors worked all the way up to the end, so the experimenters were able to prove primates could survive a trip to space. So there’s that.
A few months later they did a similar launch on a V2 with a crab-eating macaque, this one named Albert III.
This one exploded before it reached apogee, which ended the short career of Albert III.
Albert IV made it to space in December 1949, also on a V2… But the parachute failed and he died.
In 1950, they flew the last V2 mission, this time with a mouse on board because I guess they ran out of monkeys…
Dezik, Tsygan, and Yorick
From here, the US did their tests on Aerobee rockets, which are basically our version of the V2.
The first launch was another monkey, this one went by Albert V. New rocket – apparently the same shitty parachutes because they failed and he didn’t survive.
Just so I’m clear, the only animal that has survived so far has been fruit flies. That’s the only parachute that worked.
So while the US was lowering the worldwide population of monkeys, the Soviets were experimenting with dogs.
Yeah, Laika was the first dog to go into orbit. There were other dogs before her that were suborbital.
The first two were named Dezik and Tsygan, they were launched together on July 22, 1951, on a Soviet R-1V rocket, which is basically their version of a V2.
They reached an altitude of around 110 kilometers, and guess what, they actually survived. Both of them.
That’s right, the godless commies actually brought them home alive. Making them the first mammals to survive a trip to space.
Tsygan became the pet of a Russian diplomat, but Dezik went back up on a launch just a week later, this time with a dog named Lucy, making it the first mammal to go to space twice… And then they both died in a parachute malfunction.
Back in the US, on September 20, 1951, they launched a monkey called Yorick to space – they started to name it Albert VI but then wisely decided maybe it was time to retire that name. Because of all the, you know… dying.
But yeah, Yorick went up, this time with 11 mice tagging along, and the name change must have worked because finally… Finally the parachute worked after ascending to 72 kilometers, Yorick and his 11 mouse friends landed safely in the New Mexico desert.
…Aaaand then died in the heat before the rescue crews got there.
On May 21, 1952, two crab-eating macaques named Patricia and Mike went up on an aerobee rocket. They only reached 26 kilometers, but the parachutes actually worked and they survived. Finally.
Jump forward about 5 years and there have been some more tests, some more successful than others, the Soviets have gotten Laika into orbit, and the space race is heating up.
Under pressure to match the Soviets, the US started testing on Jupiter missiles and on December 13, 1958, a squirrel monkey named Gordo flew on a Jupiter AM-13 to an altitude of 500km (310 miles).
And no, the parachutes didn’t work, Gordo died.
Able and Baker <
A little over 6 months later, on May 28, 1959, a similar launch took a rhesus Macaque named Able and a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker up to 500 km and this time guys… GUYS… They lived.
They lived even though they experienced a mind-blowing 38Gs at launch. For reference, a human passes out at around 9Gs.
Sadly, even though they both survived, Able died soon after. They had implanted sensors in both of them and when they went to remove them, Able suffered from complications from the anesthesia.
Miss Baker, however, lived another 25 years. She was a popular attraction at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Florida and later the U. S. Space Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Shortly after Able and Baker’s flight, the Soviets launched a rabbit into space named Marfusha. She flew with two dogs, plus some other animals on a Soviet R2-A rocket. Marfusha and the pups made it safe home.
Yeah, finally these animals are going to start surviving. We’re past the worst of it.
Belka, Strelka, and Ham
In fact, the first animals to orbit the Earth and live were, of course launched by the Soviets, it was a pair of dogs named Belka and Strelka in August of 1960.
Actually there was a whole menagerie of animals on that flight, including a rabbit, 40 mice, 2 rats, and 15 flasks of fruit flies and some plants.
Fun fact, later on, Soviet Premiere Nikita Kruschev gave one of Strelka’s puppies to Caroline Kennedy as a gift. And apparently there are descendants of that puppy out there somewhere. Couldn’t quite track it down though.
So this is where things start really heating up as the Soviets and the Americans prepare to launch people into space. And in the US, that meant testing the Mercury-Redstone rocket.
In January of 1961, the US flew a chimp named Ham on a Mercury-Redstone 2, making him the first great ape in space.
Ham had been trained to push a series of levers and buttons to see if he could still perform those tasks while weightless. And during the 16 minute flight, they noticed only a half-second delay, which proved that people would be capable of controlling the craft in space.
Sounds like kind-of a duh statement now, but up to this point, all the animals that went up were just cargo basically. Ham was the first one that was actually doing things on the launch.
Ham’s suborbital flight went up 252km (157 miles) and THANK THE GODS his parachute worked and he survived. This time it was a splashdown in the sea, which also might have been a first.
In fact he famously shook hands with the naval commander who rescued him.
He lived out a long and happy life in zoos and died in 1983.
A few months after Ham’s flight in 1961, the Soviets launched Sputnik 4 with a dog on board named Chernushka, or Blackie.
But Chernushka had a very interesting copilot.
It was a mannequin they named Ivan Ivanovich, wearing a prototype space suit loaded with sensors obviously to test the suit and the stresses that a human would feel.
Inside the limbs of this suit, they stuffed samples of human blood, which makes sense, but also… 80 mice, several guinea pigs, and some reptiles. Like you do.
Even wilder, they ejected Ivan from the capsule on the way down.
This was one of the options they were considering, they didn’t know if it would be safer to just land cosmonauts in the capsule or to have them just parachute down like a skydiver or paratrooper.
So they tested both on Sputnik 4. Chernushka came down with the capsule, and Ivan and his animal-stuffed limbs came down separately. And they all survived!
Oh my God, the Americans splatted so many monkeys and the Russians were literally throwing animals out of their capsules and they still survived.
I’ve officially gone from, “Oh my God, so many animals died,” to “Oh my God, so many animals survived!”
One last little cherry on top of this story was that there were some locals that saw Ivan come down and thought he was real so they went to help him but got warned off by paratroopers.
Imagine if they got to him though and opened up his suit and like, hundreds of animals spilled out. Sputnik 4 was bonkers.
But doing this proved to them that landing in the capsule was the better way to go, so a few weeks later they basically repeated that mission, this one under the name Vostok 1, and instead of filling the space suit with a bunch of random animals, they filled it with Yuri Gagarin, and the era of human spaceflight was officially begun.
And I think the ultimate takeaway here is that, you know, we hear about the first humans in space and how far we’ve come in human spaceflight since then but we rarely hear about howmuchtesting was needed to get there. I mean this literally went back decades before the first manned missions.
And I had no idea that of all the technical rocket wizardry it takes to get into space, one of the things they struggled with the most was the parachutes.
It took a lot of sacrifices by some extraordinary animal astronauts to get us there.
So next time you watch in awe as a crew heads up to the ISS or on the next moon missions, take a minute to give thanks to our intrepid animal friends and the path they carved so we can live out our dreams.
There’s so many more though.
Enos the Chimp
This one actually went into orbit, making it the only chimp to actually orbit the Earth.
So if Ham was the simian Alan Shepard, Enos was the simian John Glenn.
Enos was scheduled to orbit 3 times but was deorbited after two. Unfortunately this accomplishment was kinda overshadowed by the fact that Gagarin and Titov had already been up.
Félicette the Cat <
The first cat in space was launched by France in 1963.
It was a launch performed by the Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique…
14 strays were drafted into the program. They were tested for fitness before one cat was picked to fly.
She was given the name Félicette. And what they were most concerned with was learning how the brain responded to microgravity so they surgically implanted electrodes into her brain.
On October 18, 1963 Félicette took to the skies in a Veronique AGI sounding rocket over Algeria, and she performed like a champ. Panic would have made her brain scans useless, but she stayed chill for the entire 15-minute ride, taking her up to 160 kilometers.
And yes, the parachutes worked, she totally survived the trip.
Unfortunately, CERMA really, really wanted to know what went on in Félicette’s head. So, they euthanized her to run tests.
A second cat was sent to space by CERMA on 24 October 1963, but the flight ran into difficulties that prevented recovery.
Frogs and Tortoises
The first frogs in space were launched by the USSR in 1961.
The first animals to circle the moon were two Russian Steppe tortoises, along with an assortment of worms and flies.
This was on the Zond 5 mission, which splashed down in the Indian Ocean. All the inhabitants were recovered alive.
Arabella and Anita
The first spiders in space went up on Skylab in 1973 to see how well they spun webs in zero gravity.
If you’re curious, the answer is not so great at first. But they got the hang of it. And that experiment was suggested by a high school student, so that’s cool.
The Fabulous Nematode
Speaking of bugs, let’s talk about nematodes.
Nematodes are little wormlike creatures with really short lifespans, so they’re ideal for testing the effects of multiple generations of life in space.
And because of that they’ve become kinda legendary in spaceflight research.
The first ones to go into space were actually on the Apollo 17 mission, along with bacteria, sea monkeys, and five mice named Fee Fi Fo Fum and Phooey.
They’ve been used in countless space experiments over the years. One of the most famous ones was the last flight of Columbia in 2003.
Living nematodes were found among the wreckage after it broke apart in the sky. That’s how hardy these things are. Mind you, these weren’t the same nematodes that went up on the shuttle. They were great or great-great-grandchildren of the originals. That’s how fast they reproduce.
More recently, in 2017, nematodes were named as one of two animals that could become the first interstellar travelers.
Professor Phillip Lubin, of UC Santa Barbara, discussed sending frozen nematodes on a future laser-propelled space trip outside our solar system.
Whether or not it’s a good idea to just send life forms out across the universe is another question. That’s a bit yikesy for me.
The other animal Professor Lubin suggested should come as a surprise to very few people… Tardigrades.
The famous “water bears” were first singled out as candidates for space research in 1964. But it wasn’t until 2007 that multiple tardigrade experiments got started.
In 2019, a privately funded lunar lander named Beresheet set out with a payload that included tardigrades.
A computer error caused it to crash into the moon, unfortunately, but according to an analysis of the crash, they may have survived.
They had been dehydrated before the launch and when that happens, they enter almost a spore state that makes them practically indestructible.
It also makes them, to the best of my knowledge, the first non-human animals on the moon. And they suffered the fate of many of the first animal astronauts on Earth. Great liftoff, just didn’t stick the landing.
And we’ll find out someday if they survived. When we’ve successfully colonized the moon, maybe 100 years from now, some future astronauts may make their way to the Beresheet wreckage and find out once and for all if these tardigrades made it through.
And when they do, they’ll know the only reason they got to where they are was thanks to Laika, multiple Alberts, and many other animals that came before.
Earlier in this video, I mentioned that my list of animal astronauts is incomplete. I couldn’t mention every animal that made a sacrifice in our behalf. Many are not publicly known.
But I hope this abbreviated list has raised appreciation for the debt we owe our animal friends. Animal heroes, I should say. As humanity moves further into the depths of space, let us remember these heroes that, willingly or otherwise, helped us to get there.
And there’s so many more, guys, literally hundreds of animals have gone to space. And you haven’t.
This was such a rabbit hole that I wasn’t expecting, I left a LOT out of this, I kinda do a quick rundown of some over on Nebula, I put extra stuff in videos over there. Thankfully after a certain point most of these animals survive but yeah in the beginning… Yikes
Animal testing of course is not restricted to just the space industry, in fact you’d be hard pressed to find any industry that’s completely free of it.
And it’s a hotly debated topic. Some people will say that no amount of animal testing is okay because they can’t consent to it. Others say it’s just a necessary evil that has benefitted us all whether we agree with it or not.
But I’m curious to hear what you think in the comments. Was it all worth it? Could we have gotten the same data in more ethical ways? Talk about it down below.