Going where no other animal had gone before
Animals have always been there to brave new worlds and cross the boundaries of knowledge…whether they wanted to or not. In other words, they were always used to try out new things to see how dangerous they were for humans. Aeronautic exploration was no different. Ever since the time of the Montgolfier brothers and their hot air balloon, animals have been sent up as high as possible before humans. Obviously, when the transition was made from testing our own skies to outer space, animals again had to rise to the challenge.
1. Laika the Dog
Laika is definitely the most famous non-human space explorer. Sent up by the Russians in 1957, Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth. Her main mission was to show exactly what kind of effects spaceflight would have on a living thing because, at the time, we really didn’t know what to expect. Some considered that outer space conditions were not survivable for humans while others didn’t think we would even be able to survive the launch.
There still was one problem, though. At the time, the technology to de-orbit a spacecraft wasn’t really finished yet. All other animals up until that point were recovered because they were still in our atmosphere. Laika, on the other hand, basically went on a suicide mission without anybody telling her. The official story was that Laika lasted for 6 days in orbit after which she was euthanized before her oxygen ran out. Later it was reported that there was no euthanasia system in place. She simply died of suffocation after the 6 days.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the actual truth came out. It turned out that the orbiter had a failure which caused it to overheat and Laika actually died a few hours after launch. Still, it was enough to show us that exploring the depths of space was a feasible endeavor and, consequently, built a legacy unrivaled by almost any other dog in history. Not too bad for a stray mutt off the streets of Moscow.
2. Albert II the Monkey
Obviously, being the first animal in space would be a worthy achievement and would merit a mention on this list. Unfortunately, the first animals sent into space in 1947 were fruit flies. There was a bunch of them, they didn’t really have names so there wouldn’t be much else to say. They did survive their trip, though. After them we sent up some moss so…yeah. Same problem.
Ok, let’s move on to Albert II, the first monkey in space. Just 2 years after the fruit flies, the United States sent up Albert, a rhesus monkey, to see the effects of radiation on a more complex organism. Albert went up to a height of 83 mi (134 km) in a V2 rocket. Unfortunately, a parachute failure occurred on the way down and Albert didn’t survive his trip.
In case you were wondering what happened to Albert I, pretty much the same thing. The rocket failed during its ascent and the monkey made it only about 30 mi (48 km) in the air. Several other Alberts followed through the years, but they all met similar unfortunate fates. The first one to survive the rocket flight was Albert VI who was sent up along with 11 mice in 1951. He lasted a whole 2 hours after landing before dying.
3. Miss Baker the Monkey
It’s unfortunate that loss of life was so prevalent in the early stages of space exploration, but it was difficult and dangerous and without their sacrifices we wouldn’t understand the Universe around us like we do today. Let’s lighten the mood a bit with a look at a space pioneer who not only survived her flight, but lived well into old age and got to enjoy the fame earned by her heroic achievements.
Her name was Miss Baker and she was a squirrel monkey sent up into space in 1959. By this time, there was a lot of pressure on the United States to send up animals that actually survived their trips. This came not only from animal rights groups, but also from the USSR which already managed to send several dogs that came back and survived.
Fortunately for them (and the monkey), Miss Baker spent around 16 minutes in space, afterwards making a gentle landing. She was actually accompanied on the trip by a rhesus monkey called Miss Able who, despite surviving the trip, died four days later. Miss Baker, however, died in 1984 at the ripe old age of 27. She became a celebrity. She was awarded a certificate of merit by the ASPCA, she was on the cover of Life magazine and was even married twice. She lived long enough to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her famous flight.
4. Strelka the Dog
Belka and Strelka, two Russian dogs, became the first creatures to make a safe trip into orbit and return alive in 1960. They were sent up along with one rabbit, 2 rats, 42 mice, lots of flies and some plants, too. For once, everyone made it out alive.
Like Miss Baker, the two dogs became something of a media sensation, not just in Russia, but all over the world. Strelka actually went to have a long and happy life along with Pushok, another cosmo-dog who was used for ground experiments but never got to go up in space. They had several pups together and one of them, Pushinka (Russian for Fluffy) was gifted by Russian President Nikita Khrushchev to JFK as a present for his daughter. Pushinka then went on to have her own romance with another of the Kennedy dogs and had her own pups. The bloodline is maintained today as Strelka’s descendants are still alive.
5. Ham the Chimp
Chimps are closely related to humans so it was to be expected that, eventually, a few of them would make the trip to space before we do. Thus, in 1961, Ham became the first hominid to go into space. He made the cut out of 40 potential candidates. Back then, his only designation was #65. In case the flight went wrong, they didn’t want to name him. After his successful landing, the chimp was named Ham as an acronym for the lab where he was prepared (Holloman Aerospace Medical center).
Ham was 5 years old when he went into space and lived for 22 more years afterwards at the National Zoo in D.C. and then the North Carolina Zoo. After his death, a necropsy was performed on his body and the plan was to have him stuffed like the Soviets did with Strelka. However, the public didn’t like this idea and the plan was scrapped. His remains were buried and his skeleton was preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.