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15 Amazing Animals Who Paved the Way for Mankind to Reach for the Stars

Humans have not been the only animals to be sent into space.

For all the headlines about the first humans to do this or that in space, none of them would ever have got there without some very brave pioneering animals. Here we explore the stories of some of the first animal-astronauts who made world history.

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What animals did NASA send into space?

NASA has sent many different types of animals into space over their history. Some of the most notable include, but are not limited to:

  • Monkeys and apes
  • Mice
  • Spiders
  • Fruit flies
  • Frogs
  • Tardigrades

What happened to the animals sent into space?

As you are about to find out, not all animals sent into space were able to return safe and sound to Earth. Many of the first animals to reach high orbit, or even reach space and beyond, met very sticky ends indeed. 

But, the vast majority of animals sent into space have returned to Earth without any apparent permanent damage. 

Did the first animal in space survive?

Many of the first test animals to be sent into space never returned. A lot of the earlier attempts to even reach orbit ended in tragedy for their animal passengers. 

But the first animal to actually reach orbit, Laika the dog, appears to have met a very nasty end while in orbit. The dog's fate was kept a closely guarded secret for many years after the event. 

Mercifully these animal's sacrifices allowed scientists and engineers to learn from their prior mistakes and improve the technology used to get into space. This would eventually lead to the first few successfully manned missions into space and beyond. 

Which animals have gone into space?

So, without further ado here are some of the first animals to be put into space. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The first animals to reach high altitude were fruit flies

animals in space fruit flies
Source: Sanjay Acharya/Wikimedia Commons

At the very beginning of the space race, the first test animals blasted into high altitudes were a bunch of fruit flies. American space scientists wanted to discover the effects of cosmic radiation on living creatures before risking the lives of human astronauts.

Fruit flies were chosen as they share a lot of the same DNA as human beings. Thankfully for all involved, when they returned to Earth they were found alive with little evidence of radiation exposure.

2. Albert II was the first primate to ride a rocket

animals in space albert II
Source: Md. Tareq Aziz Touhid/Wikimedia Commons

Back in 1949, one monkey called Albert II, a rhesus macaque made monkey history by beating human beings into space. After blastoff, he reached an altitude of 134 km before returning to Terra Firma

Unfortunately, Albert II was instantly killed on impact when the landing parachute failed to deploy. Albert I, his predecessor, was also killed instantly when the captured V-2 rocket he was in failed before reaching peak altitude. 

3. Mice have also been sent up

animals in space mice
Source: Hy'Shqa/Flickr

Throughout the early 1950s, mice were used quite often as test subjects during early launches. In 1950, one, in particular, was able to reach an altitude of 137 km.

Like many other test animals before it, the mouse was killed when the rocket disintegrated after its parachute failed to deploy. 

4. Laika was the first animal to reach orbit

Famously in 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal in history to reach orbit around the Earth. But, as we are all now abundantly aware, Laika did not survive the experience and died from stress and heat exposure. 

5. A couple of monkeys were the first animals to reach orbit and return alive

animals in space baker able
Source: NASA

Back in 1959, a rhesus monkey called Able and a squirrel monkey called Baker made animal history. The pair successfully made it into orbit and, unlike many other test animals, were able to be returned to Earth alive and well.

They were able to withstand multiple times the pull of Earth's gravity and were weightless for a total of 9 minutes.

6. A rabbit has also been sent into space

Back in 1959, the Soviet space program launched a rabbit along with two other dogs into space. This made the rabbit the first of its kind to ever leave mother Earth.

Called Marfusha, the trio returned to Earth safe and sound. 

7. Ham the chimpanzee became the first hominid to reach space

In 1961, Ham the chimp reached a sub-orbital trajectory in a Mercury capsule. This was a complete three months before Alan Shepard's historic flight the same year.

Ham, thankfully, survived the experience without any apparent long-lasting damage. 

8. A cat was sent by the French into space

animals in space cat
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in 1963, the French sent a cat, called Félicette, into space. She had electrodes implanted under her skin so her condition could be monitored back on Earth.

The cat reached an altitude of 160 km and returned to Earth safe and sound.

9. These two tortoises were the first to orbit the Moon

animals in space tortoise
Source: Yuriy75/Wikimedia Commons

Back in 1968, the Soviets managed to send a pair of steppe tortoises in an orbit around the Moon. Sent aboard the Soviet Zond 5 spacecraft the tortoises were accompanied by wine flies, meal-worms and some plants and seeds.

All of the craft's passengers returned to Earth safely. 

10. Belka and Strelka were the first animals to return safely from orbit

Back in 1960, two dogs, Belka and Strelka (plus some mice and flies) became the first animals to reach orbit and return to Earth safely. 

11. These two dogs completed a 22-day orbit of Earth

animals in space dogs
Source: Tekniska museet/Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a pair of dogs, Veterok and Ugolyok, made history by completing an epic 22-day orbit of Earth. The pair were brought back to Earth safely and their endurance record is yet to be broken. 

12. Spiders have also been into space

animals in space spiders
Source: NASA

After man successfully landed on the Moon, animals were no longer making the headlines. But that didn't mean they were not regular visitors into space.

For example, back in 1970, a pair of garden spiders, Arabella and Anita, became the first spiders to spin webs in space. They spent 59 days onboard the NASA space station Skylab. 

13. Frogs have even been launched into space

animals in space frogs
Source: Dawson/Wikimedia Commons

In 1970, a pair of bullfrogs were launched into orbit aboard the Orbiting Frog Otolith spacecraft. The experiment was conducted to test the effects of space travel on motion sickness. 

14. Fish have also been sent into space

animals in space fish
Source: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

In 1973, a mummichog minnow and fifty eggs were sent into space to test the effects of microgravity on animals that moved in three dimensions. Initially, the minnow kept swimming in loops rather than straight lines but gradually acclimatized to their new home. 

This made the minnow the first-ever fish in space. 

15. Tardigrades have also made space history

And finally, back in 2007, tardigrades made history by becoming the first known animals to survive in outer space. With a lack of oxygen, tons of radiations, freezing cold temps and no water, the test subjects amazingly survived the experience. 

They were desiccated before the flight and spent 10 days in the cold vacuum of space. When they were returned to EArth and rehydrated, 68% of them carried as if nothing had happened. 

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