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Here is a little-known fact: The United States and the U.S.S.R. started putting animals atop rockets back in 1947. On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik 2 with a small dog, Laika, who ended up being the first animal to orbit Earth.
But Laika was one of many animals who were used to test the safety and feasibility of launching a living being into space and bringing it back unharmed. Animals have continued to play an important role in understanding the impact of microgravity on biological functions.
Astronauts have used a variety of animals — wasps, beetles, tortoises, flies, worms, fish, snails, guinea pigs, butterflies, scorpions, cockroaches, moneys, chimps, dogs, crickets, mice, frogs and more — as specimens to study. These animals are members of the menagerie who’ve been to space.
Laika was a young, mostly-Siberian husky. She was rescued from the streets of Moscow. She and two other dogs were trained for space travel by being kept in small cages and learning to eat a nutritious gel that would be their food in space. Unfortunately, Lakia never made it back to Earth. A re-entry strategy could not be worked out in time for the launch, and so it is unknown how long Laika lived in orbit, perhaps a few hours or days, until the power to her life-support system gave out.
Fruit flies were the first animals to reach space — minus any bacteria that may have hitched a ride on previous rockets. On Feb. 20, 1947, the United States put fruit flies abroad captured German V-2 rockets to study radiation exposure at high altitudes. In just three minutes and 10 seconds, the fruit flies reached a distance of 68 miles.
On Nov.9, 1970, two bullfrogs were launched on a one-way mission so scientists could learn more about space motion sickness.
The first mammal in space was Albert II, a Rhesus monkey. Albert I’s mission had been unsuccessful, but the second Albert reached a distance of 83 miles. He was anesthetized during flight and had sensors on him that measured his vital signs. Unfortunately, Albert II died upon impact at re-entry.
Able and Miss Baker
Able, a rhesus monkey, and Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey flew a successful mission on May 28, 1959, aboard the JUPITER AM-18. Able died while undergoing a surgery to remove an infected medical electrode because he had a reaction to the anesthesia. Baker became the first monkey to survive the stresses of spaceflight and the related medical procedures.
Tsygan and Dezik
While the U.S. focused on monkeys, the Soviet Union was focused on dogs. The first canines launched were Tsygan and Dezik, abroad the R-1 IIIA-1. The dogs reached space July 22, 1951, but did not orbit, and were successfully recovered from spaceflight.
Belka and Strelka
Belka and Strelka were the first dogs to actually orbit and return alive. The Soviet Union sent them to space on Aug. 19, 1960.
Félicette, whose nickname was “Astro-cat” is the only cat to have been sent in space. She was a black-and-white stray cat, who was found on the streets of Paris by a pet dealer. She was purchased by the French government and was sent to space on Oct. 18, 1963 on a Véronique AGI 47 sounding rocket. It was a non-oribital flight that last 15 minutes and the cat returned safely. She was, however, euthanized three months later so scientists could conduct more testing on her brain.
Veterok and Ugolyok
The Soviet Union sent Veterok and Ugolyok into space on Feb. 22, 1966. They orbited for a record-breaking 22 days, which humans did not surpass until 1974.