Unknowingly Heroic Animals Who Explored The Final Frontier During The Space Race

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.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Tortoises Of Zond 5, Who Were The First Animals To Circle The Moon
    Photo: USSR Post / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Tortoises Of Zond 5, Who Were The First Animals To Circle The Moon

    In 1968, the outcome of the Moon Race was not yet a sure thing. Apollo had seen a significant setback - the 1967 fire that cost the lives of astronauts Grissom, Chafee, and White - and the Soviet Union had not yet conceded the race to their Cold War adversaries.

    On September 14, the U.S.S.R. launched its Zond 5 mission, which aimed to send a space capsule to the the moon and back. In the cargo of the Soyuz 7K-L1 spacecraft were the first terrestrial organisms to travel near the moon, including two small Russian tortoises, a number of fruit-fly eggs and plants, and some bacteria.

    A few technical hitches aside, the mission was a success. The spacecraft took high-resolution photos of the far side of the moon, and both tortoises made it back home healthy and alive. Sadly for them, they were dissected four days later by Soviet scientists who wanted to record the physiological changes they had undergone in space.

    Despite the mission's success, the Soviets were unable to get cosmonauts to where the tortoises had been. Two months later, the U.S. regained the initiative when Apollo 8 sent 3 astronauts around the moon, and seven months after that, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would set foot on the lunar surface.

  • Laika, The Orbiter
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Laika, The Orbiter

    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."

  • Albert II, The Prime Primate

    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.

  • Tsygan And Dezik, The Survivors

    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, The Successful Orbiters

    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.

  • Ham, The Actual Astronaut

    Ham the chimpanzee was the first animal that could be considered an actual astronaut. He was chosen from dozens of other potential astro-chimps after a particularly strong showing at "training camp." Ham was trained to perform nonfunctional tasks - like pulling various levers in the space shuttle - through Pavlovian methodology that, for example, gave him banana pellets for successful actions and electric shocks for incorrect ones.

    NASA wanted to see if Ham could perform his tasks just as well while in space. Ham came through like a champ, but the mission wasn't a perfect success. The air pressure in the cabin failed, but because Ham was sealed in his own capsule, he was safe. The capsule began filling with water when he splashed down, though, necessitating a rescue via helicopter.