The aim of Team Puli is to send Hungary’s first probe to the Moon. Although the Puli bears the name of a Hungarian herding dog breed, it is itself a machine; but we still consider it important to commemorate all the actual animals that ventured first into space and gave their lives to help the start of human spaceflight.
Space research, now more than 50 years old, owes a lot to the barely recognized but still pioneer spacefarers, without whom it would not have been able to develop in such an unbelievable pace. These first cosmo- and astronauts however were not human, but animals.
Today it might seem trivial but at the dawn of the space age, scientists were not sure if humans could stay alive in space. There were serious debates about how zero gravity or increased radioactivity might affect future astronauts. Herre too, as in many areas of science, the researchers turned to our earthly neighbours and only with their help was space science able to get where it is today.
Most consider the dog Laika the first spacefarer who travelled aboard the Sputnik-2 probe on the 3rd of November, 1957, however, the story starts before his journey.
Wild race for space
The first tries were suborbital flights, during which a capsule was sent to the upper regions of the atmosphere but did not reach orbital speed (7,9 km/s). The first living beings to preform a suborbital flight were fruit-flies which were sent up in 1947 by the Americans, using a German V2 rocket to study the effects of spaceflight on living beings. The rocket reached a height of 171 km (107 miles), and returned its passengers safely to the ground.
The first mammal, also from the States, followed shortly on the 11th of June, 1948. The chosen specimen was a rhesus macaque named Albert I but due to poor documentation he remained historically largely unrecognized. The monkey flew for 6 minutes aboard a V-2 Blossom rocket, reached a height of 62 km (39 mi), and so did not reach the boundary of space at 100 km (62.5 mi, an internationally recognized theoretical line, the so called Kármán-line). This was recorded as a major achievement at the time, even though the monkey did not survive the trip.
After this, until December, 1949, three other launches were preformed in the „Albert series”, during which further monkeys were sent to the sky. Albert II passed the edge of the atmosphere on the 14th of June, 1949, by flying as high as 133 km (83 mi). The landing however was less fortunate as the passenger lost its life when the arriving capsule crashed into the surface. The third attempt failed when the rocket exploded at a height of 10 km (6 mi). The last flight on the 12th of December, 1949 was hailed as a success as Albert IV seemed to fare well with the travelling conditions, even though he was also killed upon landing.
At the same time, the Americans also experimented on other animals. In August, 1948 mice ventured into space. They were even photographed in weightlessness and landed safely afterwards. In the suborbital flight of the 20th of September, 1951 not less than 11 mice and monkey named Yorick took part. The small team reached 72 km (45 mi) and returned unharmed, Yorick later even received significant media attention as he was the first „space monkey” who returned alive.
The Soviet Union monitored the US space program closely, they even based many of their experiments on the medical data obtained by the Americans. In the early fifties they used rodents for testing but for preparing human spaceflight more „human-like” passengers were needed. While the Americans turned to monkeys, the Soviets did not follow their path and considered dogs to be more able to withstand such conditions. Interestingly, female specimens were preferred as they have a higher stress tolerance.
Only between 1951 and '52 nine canines were sent to space. The first suborbital flights on the 15th of August, 1951 were „performed by” Dezik and Tsygan, who both landed safely. The famous day of the 3rd of November, 1957, came years later when Laika (originally named Kudryavka), the small sized stray dog first orbited the Earth aboard the Sputnik-2 satellite, and wrote her name in history. The space race between the USA and the CCCP urged researchers to provide results as fast as possible. The dog was prepared for the flight in a very short time and there was no method developed yet to bring her back from orbit. According to the news at that time, Laika died without pain, days after launch. On the World Space Congress in 2002, however, the Russians revealed the true story. The former Soviet scientists admitted after 45 years that Laika died within hours after launch due to immense overheating, chained, and in fear. The Sputnik-2 travelled around the globe 2566 times more with its lifeless passenger before burning in the atmosphere on the 14th of April, 1958.
Meanwhile a new program had started in the USA. Few days after the destruction of the Sputnik-2, on the 23rd of April the MIA-program had launched with mice, which was a great leap forward. In the MIA-2 the second „mouse-astronaut” stood the 60 G acceleration and 45 minute long weightlessness. This has almost served as an adequate evidence for that a human is also able to survive under similar conditions. In spite of this the animal experiments were not given up, in 1958, on the 28th of May came a monkey called Gordo’s turn. Though the capsule, in which the monkey travelled was never found, he did a great favour for the science. The information about the monkey’s heartbeat and breath supported that man is capable of space travel. It was still not followed by a manned mission; the Americans kept on experimenting with monkeys.
The Soviets also did not want to fall behind in the competition, they continued on experimenting the effects of being in the space on dogs. In 1960, on the 28th of July, the passengers of Sputnik-4 space probe were Bars and Lisichka. But the plan ended in failure because the rocket blew up right after the launch. Still, in the course of the spaceflight on the 19th of August, two dogs called Belka and Strelka had luck. Later Strelka gave birth to puppies, one of them was given to John F. Kennedy as a symbolic movement.
In the December of 1960 two units (Sputnik 5 and 6) had left the surface of the Earth with dogs on board but both missions were a failure because of the breakdown of the rockets. However, the following two flights were successful, the Sputnik 9 with Chermushka and the Sputnik 10 with Zvezdochka.
Between 1950 and 1960 the Soviet Union launched dozens of dogs into the space. Altogether there were 57 „dog travels” and because it happened that one dog flew more than once, the number of dogs who were in the space is a bit less.
In 1961 the US made a giant leap again. They decided that the chimpanzee’s turn had come, which are the closest living creatures to humans. On the 31st of January Ham, the first astronaut chimpanzee floated 680 km (425 mi) above the sea level for 6,5 minutes, travelling at 9400 km/h. Apart from the tiredness, the journey had no bad effect on him. On the 5th of May, a human astronaut called Alan B. Shepard sat in the space capsule. The competition, however, was won by the Soviets, because Shepard was preceded by Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the passenger of Vostok 1, who entered the space nearly a month before, on the 12nd of April.
Not just the two great powers made experiments with animals, France has also taken her share of the space program. In 1963, breaking the habits, they sent the first cat into the space. Felix was found on the streets of Paris, was chosen from his 13 companion. Electrodes were placed in his head to examine the impulses of his brain during his stay in the space.
Few years later different kinds of experiments appeared. From 1966 the US started a new program called Biosatellite, in which three probes were launched. Its goal was that to carry out biological experiments on different living creatures when they are orbiting around the Earth. These attempts had led to a new era. There was also a giant leap on the field of animal space travel. In 1968 in a space probe called Zond-5 turtles, fruit flies, worms, bacteria and plants reached the Moon on the 18th of September. After turning around the heavenly body the spacecraft reached the Earth successfully but the living creatures did not stay alive.
In the Space Laboratory
After the Moon-landing of the Apollo 11 with people on board (in 1969, on the 20th of July), the role of animals had changed. But in parallel the circle of species increased: the most examined creatures being micro-organisms, arthropods, fish and amphibians. In 1970 on the 9th of November for example the OFO-A satellite flew two frogs into space. Scientists wanted to examine on them how the inner ear’s control reacts to the balance in the state of weightlessness. Three years later on the Skylab-3 two cross spiders, Anita and Arabella had an important role. The question was whether the spiders are able to spin a cobweb. The result was surprising, because the spiders’ webs were not only ready (although it took a little bit more time) but their quality was better too.
The next research program in life sciences was initiated in 1973 by the Soviet Union. Many countries, including Hungary, joined the Bion program that launched probes even till 1996. Bion-1, launched in October 31st 1973, spent 22 days circling the Earth with tortoises, rats, insects and mushrooms on board. Among others, various ants, earthworms, fish, newts, frogs, monkeys and even bird eggs or mold fungi traveled on the following missions. Effects of weightlessness on living beings, especially the distribution of calcium in the bones and the changes in muscle tone were mainly investigated during the Bion experiment series.
Animal tests have continued intensively in the last two decades. The human-rated space shuttles of the USA have also carried more than two dozen “bio packages” since 1983 – the highest number of creatures, more than two thousand, flew on 17th April 1998. A surprising result came from the experiments conducted aboard Atlantis in 2006. Salmonella bacteria were transported to space in sealed test tubes. Results were most intriguing: the bacteria mutated in space, making them more aggressive.
Another sensation came a year later from Russia when the first “space babies”, cockroaches actually, were born on board the Foton-M bioprobe. The cockroach called Hope (Nadezhda) gave birth to 33 offspring and it turned out that weightlessness did not affect reproduction. Another goal was to compare the development of space and ordinary cockroaches. Results showed that creatures grew faster in space.
One of the most peculiar experiments was conducted by the European Space Agency in 2008. The test subjects were tardigrades, also known as water bears, transported by a Russian satellite, who spent ten days in open space: sometimes below -250 °C (-420 °F), without oxygen, exposed to cosmic radiation. To the surprise of the researchers, 68 percent of the animals s
urvived the extreme conditions. Although the DNA of the surviving tardigrades was damaged, they were able to regenerate somehow. Experiments like these may bring medical breakthroughs if we are able to crack open the secrets of such regenerative capabilities.
The mentioned animal experiments are just examples since the number of possible questions are infinite. Could fish swim in weightlessness, could bees produce honey in space, do ant colonies remain operable, how do mammals look after their offspring in microgravity – researchers try to find answers for such physiological problems and questions.
Innumerable animals participated in various programs during the past half century of the space age. Their contribution, although often claimed their life, advanced spaceflight beyond measure. Therefore, very strict regulation have been issued to ensure fair treatment and least discomfort possible to all test animals. But we should not forget that without these sacrifices, manned missions could have ended disastrously. They paved the way and made sure humanity can step on it safely.
Translation by Virág Váczi, László Molnár, Máté Ravasz
Published in "Élet és Tudomány, 2010". december
Last Updated (Saturday, 05 March 2011 10:47)