The Time Two Russian Space Tortoises Beat Apollo to the Moon

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Space tortoise
Two Russian tortoises beat the first humans, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, William A. Anders and James A. Lovell, Jr., in the race to orbit the moon. HowStuffWorks

Here's the story of how a pair of central Asian reptiles made spacefaring history.

On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy took the podium at a joint session of Congress and said, "I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Bold rhetoric for its time.

The world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched in the fall of 1957 — less than four years before JFK gave his "man on the moon" ultimatum.

About the size of a beach ball, Sputnik 1 was created by the Soviet Union. Its elliptical journey around Earth gave birth to the Space Race, a period in which the U.S. and the USSR challenged each other for superiority in the new frontier of space exploration.

Kennedy didn't live to see his ambitious goal realized; he was assassinated in 1963. But the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA for short) beat the former president's deadline with a few months to spare.

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The Race Is On

During NASA's Apollo 11 mission, in the summer of 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin took mankind's first, triumphant steps across the moon's crater-pocked surface. Four days later, they — along with crewmate Michael Collins — splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. All three men returned home safe and sound.

Apollo 8 was another feather in NASA's cap. Launched Dec. 21, 1968, that mission is remembered and celebrated for making astronauts Frank Borman, William A. Anders and James A. Lovell, Jr. the first human beings to ever orbit the moon.

Yet their trip wasn't entirely without precedent. Two small-bodied tortoises had beaten them to the punch.

After the Sputnik 1 launch, the Soviets built an impressive Space Race resume. Extraterrestrial human travel is something the USSR originally pioneered; Russian-born cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made it to space one month before the first American astronaut did.

Anyway, back to those tortoises.

Space tortoise
Russia’s Zond 5 spacecraft, carrying an extensive biological payload including two Russian tortoises, was the first successful mission to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth. The tortoises survived landing in the Indian Ocean and were returned to Moscow.
S.P.Korolev RSC Energia/NASA

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An Ark in the Cosmos

Zond 5 was a Soviet spacecraft built to ferry living organisms around the moon and then back to Earth. Such a feat had never been accomplished before.

Launched September 14, 1968, this 11,850-pound (or 5,375-kilogram) contraption began its epic journey while NASA was still making preparations for Apollo 7. And Apollo 8 was several months away.

Hundreds of fruit fly eggs made the trip aboard Zond 5. The craft's payload also included a bacteria culture, a flowering plant, algae strains and the air-dried cells of such salad bar staples as tomatoes, peas and carrots.

But by far, the two most complex organisms who boarded Zond 5 were a couple of Testudo horsfieldii tortoises.

Space tortoise
Russian tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii), like the two who flew to the moon and back on Zond 5 (not pictured here), are herbivores native to Asia.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

Native to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, these shelled creatures are often sold in American pet stores. Reptile hobbyists usually call them "Russian tortoises," even though they don't naturally occur in Russia. Adults get about 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) long.

The two "Russian" torts chosen for Zond 5 were around 6 or 7 years old, according to NASA's website.

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Turtle Power

You've really got to feel for these animals. Beginning Sept. 2, 1968, the tortoises spent 12 days living inside the Zond 5 spacecraft — right up until it launched Sept. 14.

All the while, they were purposefully deprived of food. Soviet scientists worried that if the reptiles were allowed to eat before launch time, it could taint important data they hoped to collect on spaceflight's physical side-effects.

Four days into the mission, the tortoises and their travel companions circled the moon. Just as the Soviets intended, they became the first living things ever to do so.

Zond 5 looped around the moon's far side took some wonderful photographs. Its long journey came to an end Sept. 21, 1968, when the vessel splashed down in the Indian Ocean.

Both tortoises survived the trek. Although each one lost about 10 percent of its body weight, they were found to be in good health overall. Caretakers also reported that the adventure didn't hurt their appetites; the creatures enjoyed some nutritious dinners after coming home.

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