Combine two of modern society's most beloved interests, pets and outer space, and you've got a winning - and educational - combination. At the height of the space race, easily one of world history's most thrilling competitions, international space programs used dozens of animals for experimentation and test flights. Sadly, their stories often go unrecognized. While human astronauts are idolized by millions and continue to have their stories retold, their compatriots further down the food chain have mostly been reduced to historical footnotes and curiosities.
Countless brave beasts, along with more than a few who were terrified beyond belief, entered the final frontier for the sole purpose of expanding humanity's knowledge of the universe. Their groundbreaking achievements in space, along with their sacrifices, deserve to be honored just as much as those of their space-traveling human counterparts.
As Elton John famously sang, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it's cold as hell." Space probably isn't a great place for pets, either, and it's certainly not somewhere animals choose to go of their own accord. The cosmonaut creatures who went to space had no say in their missions, but in the end, they got the job done just like any other astronaut.
Laika - nicknamed "Muttnik" by the Americans - is undoubtedly the most famous space animal, although she was far from the first. Laika's major accomplishment was being the first animal to orbit around the planet in November 1957. The mixed-breed dog was a stray in Russia before she was chosen for her hardiness to take part in the Sputnik 2 launch.
Laika was reportedly a very nice pup, but she did not have a happy ending to her story. While the Russians initially reported that Laika passed painlessly after about a week in orbit, years later it was revealed that she actually died just hours into her flight due to "panic and overheating."
In 1949, the United States decided it was finally time to put a monkey into space, and they chose Albert, a rhesus monkey, for the job. Unfortunately, the attempt was a failure and resulted in Albert's passing, so they then recruited Albert II.
Albert II earned the title of first mammal in space on June 14, 1949. He rocketed a stunning 83 miles into the sky. He was anesthetized throughout the flight, which might have been for the best - his re-entry was unsuccessful and he didn't survive impact.
Laika, the Soviet dog who was the first living thing to orbit the planet, was incredibly famous, but she wasn't the first dog in space as commonly believed. That honor belongs to Tsygan and Dezik, two pups the Soviet space program shot into space, but not orbit, on July 22, 1951.
Not only did Tsygan and Dezik's mission precede Laika's, but it was also more successful from the dogs' perspective - the two regained the atmosphere alive and recovered well after landing.
These early spacefaring hounds helped inspire the popular Marvel Comics character Cosmo, who appears in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Belka and Strelka, two Soviet dogs whose names mean "Squirrel" and "Little Arrow," combined the tricks performed by Laika, Tsygan, and Dezik when they orbited the Earth and survived the return trip. They returned home on August 19, 1960, two years after Laika's mission and nine after the journey of Tsygan and Dezik.
The two pups accomplished this goal more than half a year before their compatriot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the planet.