The Unsung Heroes of the Space Program

Reports of Iran successfully launching a grey rhesus monkey into space this week has been making a splash online, but it’s only the latest in a long line of unwitting participants in humankind’s exploration of outer space. While many question the veracity of this news, it does make us think of the significant role animals have played in humankind’s push towards the final frontier.  A menagerie of species has been hitching a ride to the great unknown since the dawn of the space age; from microbes and fruit flies to apes and canines.

In 1959 a squirrel monkey named Baker was one of the first primates to survive a trip into space. She lived until 1984. Photograph courtesy NASA.

Before the first astronaut left the bonds of Earth, researchers felt they needed to have large mammals like dogs and primates to be our testers to determine if it was even possible to survive the high gravitational forces and the weightless environment of space.  The first animals to make it into space were actually fruit flies aboard a U.S. modified V2 rocket in 1947 and a rhesus monkey the following year.  Both were sub-orbital flights but it was the Russia’s dog cosmonaut Laika that became the first animal to orbit the Earth on November 3, 1957. Unfortunately the hapless pup did not survive the historic trip.

Much has changed since we first started strapping animals and ourselves into space bound rockets. Flash forward 50 plus years later and more than 500 humans have earned their astronaut wings and even space tourism looks like it might be around the corner. Much more rigid research policies are in place at national space agencies which govern animal use making sure they are put into service only when necessary and do get treated humanely.

There is no need to send primates or man’s best friend because we humans are for the most part now the guinea pigs of choice.  So in this light  Iran’s monkey mission this week is more than  60 years behind its time and seen as more of a PR stunt than anything else.

While suiting up chimps is a thing of the past, we still do rely on many kinds of creatures to conduct essential physiological research destined to help in expanding human space exploration beyond Earth orbit. But due to practical reasons and housing needs on spacecraft like the now-retired space shuttle, resupply cargo ships, and the International Space Station, they are much lower-ordered species like fish, frogs, and insects that are selected as passengers.

Scientists can use sophisticated computer models and astronauts themselves; however there are certain kinds of experiments that would be a burden on space crews and be impractical—like those that require strictly monitored, long-term daily diets for example. These days, other than humans, mice are the most complex organisms being lofted into low Earth orbit—staying for weeks at a time onboard the space laboratory.

Unique data can obtained from how these small mammals cope with microgravity conditions that can be directly applied to humans, helping to solve medical problems both in space and on Earth. For example a recent experiment on one of the final flights of the space shuttle leveraged the microgravity environment of space to investigate bone loss in mice.  Accelerated aging of the skeleton with bones becoming brittle without the pull of gravity is just one of many medical challenges (ex. muscle atrophy and space radiation) facing future human crews on multi-year deep space missions like those to the planet Mars.  But there are also more down to Earth potential spinoffs too—like developing more effective drugs to fight the bone degenerative disease of osteoporosis seen in the elderly.

Animals are not sent into space often anymore because of cheaper, more efficient alternatives but many biological experiments still being conducted are giving scientists invaluable insight about the challenges space can pose to life and how to solve them. When the time comes that we live permanently in space and head out across the solar system, it will be thanks to the multitude of animals that gave their service, and lives in many cases, in the name of advancing space exploration.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.