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Meet the Heroic Animals That Went Into Space Before Humans

November 12, 2018


In 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Since then, more than 500 people have left earth’s atmosphere, and 12 people have set foot on the Moon. But back when space travel was still very new, we didn’t really know whether life could survive in space.


So scientists had to come up with ways to find out - and for decades, they’ve been studying life in space with the help of some crawly, wiggly, fluttery, furry friends.


These kinds of experiments were vital for helping scientists develop the brand new technology that we needed to take our first steps off of Earth. And since then, they’ve helped scientists study the effects of long term space travel on living creatures.


The idea of using animals to test flight goes back a long time. The Montgolfier brothers sent a duck, a sheep, and a rooster up as the first passengers to ride in a hot air balloon in 1783. They wanted to test the effects of high altitude on live animals. The sheep was a stand in for a human, while the duck, thanks to its ability to fly, was considered a control.


It would be a long time before we’d get around to sending anything beyond our atmosphere, though. After several early launches in the late 1940’s with simpler life forms like fungi and insects, the first mammal in space was Albert II, a rhesus monkey, on June 14, 1949 - twenty years before humans landed on the moon. Scientists wanted to find out how exposure to all the radiation up there would affect mammals. Albert II launched in a V2 rocket from White Sands, New Mexico. He reached an altitude of over 130 kilometers, and he survived that part - but he died because of a parachute failure during landing.


Soviet union researchers chose dogs over primates, since they thought dogs were more likely to sit still during flight, making them easier to monitor. They were also the first to recover mammals alive after space flight - the dogs Dezik and Tsygan (pictured above)

landed safely in 1951.


Then, in 1957, a dog named Laika became the first animal to orbit Earth - though she sadly died a few hours into the flight.


These early experiments were crucial in developing the equipment to keep an animal alive during takeoff and while they were in flight. Each launch was a test of new technology. A lot of animals were lost, but scientists learned from these failures, engineering things like better rockets, flight capsules, and landing gear.


After some missions failed because of faulty parachutes, for example, American engineers redesigned the parachutes so that in 1951, they were able to successfully recover Yorick, a second rhesus monkey, alive.


Once they’d worked out those details, they were finally ready to start sending humans out of our atmosphere.


Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961, and less than a month later, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. So we’d figured out it was possible for life to survive in space and sent some more humans up there.


But animals were still incredibly important for space research - especially when it comes to studying the effects of microgravity and radiation exposure. 


In 2003 and 2004, for example, scientists sent some simple invertebrates to the International Space Station - a group of nematode worms called C. elegans. They wanted to examine the impact of space living on DNA - whether living in space would lead to any observable changes at the genetic or cellular level.


C. elegans was a good choice for this research because the worms have a relatively small genome and are used in research all the time, so their genes have been completely mapped. Plus, with their short life spans, they’re great for studying effects over generations.


Overall, the researchers didn’t find too many changes in gene expression - but they /did/ find that worms within the same group showed the same small changes. That might mean that different populations might have different sensitivities to space flight - which could explain why some astronauts have a harder time adjusting to orbit than others. These kinds of experiments are still going on today - the ISS even has a special Rodent Research Facility, a habitat designed specifically for studying mice in space.


So thank you to all the non-human astronauts: the creatures who are helping us better understand how living and moving in space impact us.


Thank you for choosing SkyFeed! Be sure to follow my social media (Instagram: @astrolia) and subscribe to get the best of space exploration delivered to your inbox every week.


Source: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest on the subject. Hofmeister, Caitlin. "Why We Send Animals to Space." SciShow Space, YouTube. 30 Aug, 2016. Web video.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Meet the Heroic Animals That Went Into Space Before Humans." SkyFeed. 12 Nov, 2018. Web article.

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