I was watching an episode of season 2 of Apple TV+’s For All Mankind the other day in which characters were talking about the first animal in space. The series being an alternative history, I looked up online to know if they had changed bits of the real story and discovered that people search about it in a way that could fit in my blog’s theme—and this gave me an excuse to write about that here. Yes, I now introduce a new category of articles, not about inventions and discoveries, just about “the firsts.” Of course, it probably will be about inventions and discoveries, but not only. Let’s begin…
What was the first animal in space and did it survive?
It was not Men who were first sent into space, not even dogs, it was fruit flies. Those insects, belonging to the family Drosophilidae, were pioneers of Space exploration.
At the very beginning of the space program, tests were made with the famous V2 rockets (the ones used by Germany during World War II and designed by Wernher von Braun). On 20 February 1947, fruit flies were put inside one of those rockets for a little trip doubling as a research mission. Launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the rocket was sent 67 miles into the air. The idea was, at the time, that the limit between Earth’s atmosphere and space was 66 miles upward.
Once they reached space, the fruit flies didn’t go to the moon, they were parachuted back to Earth. The scientists got their flies back and run some tests, discovering then that they didn’t mutate. The fear was that cosmic radiation could have had dramatic effects. If this was the case, the flies could have been the first and also last animals in space. They were certainly not.
The First Vertebrates in Space
Flies are small. Bigger animals needed to do the trip to collect even more data before a man could strap on a V2 on his back for a trip to the stars. Next came monkeys, and they were not lucky at all.
The first primate launched was a rhesus macaque named Albert. On June 11, 1948, Albert didn’t go very far as he rode to 39 miles (63 km) in Earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, he died of suffocation during the flight. On June 14, 1949, Albert II (a crab-eating macaque this time) had better luck, surviving the flight, but after a parachute failure, he crashed and died on impact. Thought, he reached space (flight up to 83 miles/134 km) and became the first mammal to do so. Later the same year, Albert III died in an explosion of his V2, and Albert IV was also a victim of a parachute failure.
After that, they stopped using the V2 and went on with the Aerobee rockets. The change was not favorable to Albert V who also died due to parachute failure. On September 20, 1951, Yorick (aka Albert VI) and his 11 mouse crewmates had more luck. First, they reached 44.7 miles (72 km) without explosion, then they survived the landing.
Man’s Best Friends in Space
As the Americans continued sending monkeys in space, Russians preferred dogs. On 15 August 1951, Dezik and Tsygan became the first dogs to make a suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 68 miles (110 km). Dezik went back, this time with Lisa, and they tragically died because of a parachute failure. Tsygan stayed on Earth and was adopted as a pet (not a test subject!) by Soviet physicist Anatoli Blagonravov.
A lot of dogs went up after them. Some like ZIB, Otvazhnaya, Albina, Tsyganka, Krasavka, and more were lucky to survive. In fact, Albina survived an ejection at an altitude of 53 miles (85 km) and was on the list to fly aboard Sputnik 2, but was not selected.
On 3 November 1957, it was Laika who became the first living creature from Earth in orbit, aboard Sputnik 2. Sadly, she died after a few hours into the flight (between 5 and 7 hours in) from stress and overheating, as we finally learned in October 2002—before that, the official story was that Laika lived in space until her oxygen supply ran out.
A few years later, Belka and Strelka were two lucky dogs who successfully spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 before safely returning to Earth. They are the first higher living organisms to survive orbit in outer space. Strelka went on with her life, giving birth to 6 puppies, one of them named Pushinka was presented to President John F. Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961.
On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space.
Want more stories about space? Why not read our article about Who Discovered Pluto?