Why Are There Dozens of Dead Animals Floating in Space?

A fish ready for microgravity tests. See more fish pictures.
Image courtesy NASA

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man in history to step on the surface of the moon. Millions of people tuned in to a broadcast of the event, and after Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. joined Armstrong, the two spent about two and a half hours gathering lunar rocks to bring back for analysis. The success was a triumph, not just for the United States, but for mankind, the imagination and the possibilities of exploration.

What many people don't know, however, are the special sacrifices that had to be made in order to get astronauts up into space at all. The major unsung heroes of space exploration, it turns out, are animals.


Before space programs started sending people up into orbit, scientists couldn't agree on what it would be like for a living organism to leave Earth's atmosphere. What would be the effects of weightlessness on a mammal? How would the body handle radiation from the sun? Instead of sending people up in such a risky situation, the United States and Russia sent monkeys, chimps, dogs and other animals into space in order to analyze such effects.

Unfortunately, since it was so early on in the space race, the design process for constructing the vehicles was trial and error -- if launches or reentry procedures were faulty, the animals had little chances of survival. In some cases, the spacecraft in which the animals flew were never recovered, leading many to suspect there are still several abandoned ships floating in orbit among space junk with their original furry cargo.

To learn more about animals in space and how they helped scientists learn more about space exploration, see the next page.


Early Animals in Space

Chimps during training at Holloman Air Force Base for spaceflight
Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

The first living organisms to make it into space and back were actually much smaller than a monkey or a dog -- in 1947, a container full of fruit flies successfully flew 106 miles above the Earth and parachuted back without any apparent damage.

Soon after that, space programs began sending up larger animals. The next year, the Aero Medical Laboratory began conducting animal experiments in White Sands, N.M., and on June 11, 1948, a V-2 Blossom rocket launched into space with Albert I, a rhesus monkey. Because of close quarters, Albert died of suffocation during the flight. By naming the monkey Albert, the scientists started a trend, since every monkey used during the operation was called Albert, and the entire endeavor is now known as the Albert Project. They unfortunately also continued a trend of failure -- most of the launches experienced major technical difficulties and animal fatalities. The best that could be said was that the second monkey, Albert II, survived his entire flight through space, only to die during reentry.


More missions throughout the '50s offered more improvements, but the most famous and beloved of space animals is Laika. A month after the Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik I, the first satellite to enter orbit, the Russians revealed an even more shocking plan. On Nov. 3, 1957, Sputnik 2 launched, but this time a live dog named Laika (Russian for "Barker") was on board. Originally named Kudryavka (or "Little Curly") by the trainers, Laika was a 13-pound, part-Samoyed mongrel female from the streets of Russia -- strays were preferred for spaceflight because of their strength and their ability to survive in cold temperatures.

Laika in Sputnik II before takeoff. Her last meal on the flight was poisoned to prevent her dying a slow death of starvation. However, she died of panic and suffocation within hours of takeoff.
Keystone/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the flurry of press over Sputnik I caused Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Communist Party, to rush Sputnik 2 to launch for the one-month "anniversary" of Sputnik I, and designs for the new satellite were very poor. The Soviets even admitted soon after the launch that Laika wouldn't return home, and the satellite itself burned up in reentry. Officials led people to believe the dog survived in orbit for as long as four days before she died from overheating. In 2002, however, evidence revealed Laika actually passed away just a few hours after the launch from a combination of heat and panic. Laika's death encouraged Americans to talk more openly about the treatment of animals, and the Russian people looked down upon Sputnik 2 as an unfortunate attempt at propaganda.

For lots more information on exploration, discovery and living organisms in space, see the next page.


Lots More Information

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  • Bushnell, David. "History of research in space biology and biodynamics." NASA History Division. Jan. 1958. http://history.nasa.gov/afspbio/contents.htm
  • Gray, Tara. "A brief history of animals in space." NASA History Division. Aug. 2, 2004. http://history.nasa.gov/animals.html