Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Chimpanzees and dogs were space travel’s first guinea pigs.

May 18, 2006
More than a decade before Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts blasted into outer space aboard rockets, a squadron of chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, mice, mongrel dogs, and French cats were sent into space to ensure that space travel was viable for humans. Their missions tested the effects of weightlessness on organisms, especially their behavior under the stress of blastoff and zero gravity. Leave it to the French to launch a feline. In 1963, French scientists sent a female named Felix into orbit on a Veronique AGI rocket. An abandoned street cat, Felix was one of 14 felines specially trained in centrifuges and compression chambers in preparation for space flight. Ten of the original 14 cats were eliminated from consideration due to their propensity for eating too much. Mercifully, the French arranged for Felix’s capsule to parachute onto land instead of in the ocean.

Nicknamed “Muttnick” by the U.S. Press, canine cosmonaut Laika survived 10 days in space. (click for larger version)

Animals began flying on spaceships immediately after World War II. Four monkeys, each named Albert (I, II, III, and IV, respectively), were launched aboard captured German V-2 rockets during American post-war tests. Each monkey’s parachute failed to open. Mice, on the other hand, often survived high-speed impacts on their return to Earth. In 1959, four black mice were launched on a Thor Agena A rocket that carried a spy satellite. The mice perished when the Agena upper stage fired downward instead of skyward, sending the vehicle into the Pacific Ocean. Official speculation was that the mice would have survived had their crash occurred on land. Adding to the mystery of possible spy sabotage, the dead mice were a backup crew that had been assigned to the mission after an earlier tragedy. The original rodent crew was found dead of chemical overdose after eating the krylon that had been sprayed on their cages to cover rough edges.

Space Hounds

In the early 1950s, the Russians strapped dogs, instead of monkeys, into rockets because dogs were assumed to be less fidgety in flight. Females were chosen due to the relative ease of controlling bodily waste. Soviet R-1 series rockets carried a total of nine dogs in hermetically sealed containers. Each was ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to recovery at the end of the mission. Two dogs were onboard because more scientific evaluation allowed for more accurate test results. Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”) were the first dogs launched in August 1951. Both were successfully retrieved. A month later, Dezik went back up, this time with a dog named Lisa. The pair did not survive. Smelaya (“Bold”) and Malyshka (“Little One”) were later scheduled for spaceflight, but the day before launch, Smelaya ran away. Two days later the dog wandered back to the launchpad and the test flight was successful.

Laika (“Barker”) was the first animal to orbit the earth. No plans had been made to bring Laika back alive from her ride on Sputnik 2 in 1957. She was a small, three-year-old, stray mongrel (mostly Siberian husky) rescued from the streets of Moscow. The U.S. press nicknamed her “Muttnik.” Flight controllers monitored Laika’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It was determined that she barked repeatedly and ate her food during her 10 days alive on the flight before her oxygen ran out. Sputnik 2 eventually burned up in the outer atmosphere in April 1958. A statue honoring Laika and cosmonauts killed in flight was erected in 1997 at Star City outside Moscow. The dog can be seen peeping out from behind the cosmonauts.


(click for larger version)

A year before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on Vostok I in 1961, the dogs Strelka (“Little Arrow”) and Belka (“Squirrel”) rode a Vostok prototype spacecraft into orbit. The dogs were the first animals to return alive after orbiting Earth. Strelka gave birth after returning to earth. One of the puppies was presented to Caroline Kennedy as a gift by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The bodies of Strelka and Belka remain preserved at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow. Belka is confined behind a glass case in the museum, while Strelka is part of a traveling exhibit that tours the world.

Among the last canines to ride in space were Veterok (“Breeze”) and Ugoyok (“Little Piece of Coal”) aboard Kosmos 110 in 1966. The purpose of the flight was to determine the prolonged effects of radiation during space travel. The dogs established a record for canines of 21 sustained days in space, a mark that humans finally surpassed in June 1974 with the Skylab 2 mission.

Space Apes

The United States sent monkeys into space instead of dogs to determine if the stress of space travel and weightlessness would affect basic motor skills or the ability to think clearly. In 1952, a pair of Philippine monkeys named Patricia and Mike were the first primates to survive spaceflight. Joining the monkeys were mice named Mildred and Albert. The monkeys were strapped into their seats but Mildred and Albert were allowed to float freely in zero-gravity. In 1959, Gordo, a squirrel monkey, flew 600 miles in a Jupiter rocket one year after the Soviets launched Laika. Gordo died on splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean when a flotation device failed. Nevertheless, Navy doctors determined from monitoring his respiration and heartbeat that humans could withstand a similar trip.

Sam and Miss Sam were a pair of rhesus monkeys named for the acronym for the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. Housed in a cylindrical capsule, Sam was launched on December 4, 1959 in a Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket. His mission was to specifically test the launch escape system. One minute into the flight at a speed of 3,685 miles-per-hour, the Mercury capsule aborted from the Little Joe launch vehicle. The spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, and Sam was recovered a few hours later. Miss Sam also tested the escape system a few weeks afterward. Upon being reunited, the two monkeys reportedly embraced.


Ham was the first chimpanzee to fly in space. (click for larger version)

Riding a Mercury Redstone rocket, Ham was the first chimpanzee in space. Born in the French Camaroons, West Africa, Ham came to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1959. His flight was the precursor to Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital journey that made Shepard the first American in space. After leaving NASA, the chimp was placed on exhibit at the Washington Zoo in 1963 and later at the North Carolina Zoological Park where he lived alone until he died in 1980.

The best animal spaceflight story of all concerns the mission accomplished by a chimpanzee named Enos. His flight was a full dress rehearsal for the Mercury launch on February 20, 1962, which would make Lt. Colonel John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Purchased from the Miami Rare Bird Farm in 1960, Enos completed more than 1,250 hours of training for his mission at the University of Kentucky and Holloman Air Force Base. His training regime was more intense than Ham’s because he would be exposed to weightlessness and high g-forces for longer periods of time. Three days before his November 1961 flight, Enos was chosen to fly on board a Mercury Atlas 5. The chimp was originally scheduled to complete three orbits but was brought back after the second because the spacecraft was not maintaining proper altitude. One of the stabilizing rockets on the Mercury capsule had malfunctioned, causing the ship to spin in circles as it orbited Earth.

Then another problem arose. Something went wrong with the wiring that controlled the shock and reward system. Enos had been trained through a reward-and-punishment, “electrical shock” system that included pulling designated levers as part of daily tasks. However, the system malfunctioned during the mission, and Enos received jolts of electricity when he should have received banana pellets. Scientists at mission control assumed that Enos would do whatever it took not to be shocked and therefore compromise the mission. Despite the 79 electrical shocks he received for doing his tasks correctly, the chimp performed his commands as he had been trained. After recovery from the Atlantic Ocean, Enos reportedly jumped for joy and ran around the deck of the aircraft carrier, gleefully shaking hands with his rescuers. &

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>