Animal astronauts: Geckos, chimps and dogs pay a high price for mankind's urge to explore space

Americans favour monkeys; Russians prefer dogs. It rarely ends well - as the death of a group of reptiles on a satellite reminds us. Steve Connor on sending animals into orbit

The death of a group of geckos on board the Russian Photon-M4 satellite, which returned to Earth earlier this week, is the latest in a long history of animal sacrifices made in the name of space exploration. The reptiles, famous for being able to walk upside down on a ceiling, were part of a "sex experiment" to see how they would cope with mating in a low-gravity environment.

However, the fact that their bodies were partly mummified suggested that they must have died a week or so before re-entry (no, not that kind), possibly of cold as a result of a failure of the onboard electronics, according to a spokesman for the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow.

"Hypothermia is not the main possible cause but only one of the options. Others include a possible malfunction of the onboard equipment and life-support systems," the spokesman told the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Interestingly, a group of drosophila fruit flies that were part of the same biological payload survived the trauma and were even able to breed. It is not the first time that some animals have shown greater innate resilience than others to the extreme environment of space.

The idea of sending animals into space began in 1948 when Albert, a rhesus macaque monkey, was strapped in to a V-2 rocket launched from the White Sands missile base in New Mexico. Albert did not survive. Neither did the three other "Alberts" who flew on successive V-2 missions. Given the sensitivity of rocket testing at that time, none of these primate space pioneers became household names.

Read more: Russian space geckos return to Earth dead

That changed in 1952 when a monkey called Yorick, along with 11 mice, survived a US Air Force missile flight to an altitude of 236,000 feet – more than seven times the height of a commercial flight. During the 1950s both the US and the USSR experimented with many different animals in space, but while the Americans tended towards primates, the Russians seemed fond of using dogs.

Many female canines took part in the frantic race to build up the Soviet space programme – it was said to be easier to collect the waste of bitches. They had names like Dezik and Tsygan (meaning "Gypsy"), Smelya ("Bold") and Malyshka ("Little One"). Smelya ran off the day before launch and the Russians thought she had been eaten by the wolves that roamed the Siberian launch site, but she returned a day later and the mission resumed.

From left to right: Ham, the first chimpanzee in space; a Russian dog is prepared for lift off From left to right: Ham, the first chimpanzee in space; a Russian dog is prepared for lift off (Alamy)
One of the earliest heroes of the Soviet space programme was a dog called Laika (meaning "Barker") who in 1957 became the first animal to orbit the Earth aboard Sputnik 2. Laika, unfortunately, did not survive and the Sputnik finally burnt up in the outer atmosphere in April 1958, five months after launch.

While the Americans were experimenting with primates such as Ham, the first chimp in space, and Gordo, a squirrel monkey, the Russians continued to work with dogs as the Space Race really took off in the 1960s. Belka ("Squirrel") and Strelka ("Little Arrow") became household names in the USSR – not least because Strelka subsequently gave birth to a litter of puppies, one of which was given to President John F Kennedy as a present for his children.

Both sides in the Space Race would eventually use a menagerie of animals to test the effects of weightlessness and ionising radiation from space – rabbits, mice, rats, fruit flies, turtles, quail eggs and nematode worms were just some of the species used.

But perhaps the most amazing observation of all came in 2008 when scientists discovered that tiny creatures known as tardigrades, or "water bears", can survive not just inside a spacecraft, but in the cold vacuum of space itself. Tardigrades, which live in the harsh environment of household gutters, have turned out to be the true survivors of space exploration. µ

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes