Iran claimed Monday to have sent a monkey into space. The country previously launched smaller animals into the final frontier, including a rat, worms, and two turtles. What do space programs look for in animal astronauts?
Portability, experience in the lab, and coolness under pressure. For more than 60 years, space programs have sent animals into space for the same reason coal miners sent canaries into the coal mine: to test for dangerous conditions. To select which species to send, scientists have long looked for a few key traits. First, the animal astronauts should be small, to fit in a spacecraft’s necessarily compact quarters. Second, they should be light, to avoid burdening the rocket. Third, scientists choose animals that they’re already used to studying. For example, scientists used to working with mice might send mice. Since they’ve done dozens of experiments on the species, they’ll know if Mickey is acting unusual when he returns.
The Soviets chose to launch many of their most important test flights with dogs because they had experimented on them since the beginning of the 20th century (most famously in the experiments of Ivan Pavlov). They also thought that dogs would be less fidgety in confined spaces. The Americans chose to work with monkeys and chimpanzees for the same reason—they were accustomed to working with them in the lab—though they also valued monkeys’ and chimpanzees’ many physiological similarities to humans.
Once rocket scientists have settled on their species, they often run tests to determine a standout member of the pack. After the Soviets settled on launching canine cosmonauts, their recruits were subjected to a series of Right Stuff-style tests to find the top dog. The animals were trained for confinement (by being placed in tight cells), for loud noises and vibrations (by being subjected to loud noises and vibrations), and to relieve themselves in their space suits (there was a special sanitation device attached to the suit). Only female dogs were eligible, because they were an easier fit with the sanitation devices, and only stray mutts were tested, reportedly because they thought the street-tough animals would fare better in extreme conditions. It was after scoring high in these tests that Laika, who was thought to be particularly easy-going, was selected to be the first animal to orbit Earth. On Nov. 3, 1957, Laika was blasted into Earth orbit on the Sputnik 2, never to return. (Laika, or “Muttnik,” died after a few hours, and the Sputnik 2 burned up a few months later.)
The field of primates trying out for the American side was whittled down through a similar process. Some chimpanzees were spun around in centrifuges, to acclimate them to G-forces. Others were trained to throw switches when signaled by colored lights. Many were chosen for their temperament, but the earliest ones were just sent out sedated. Unfortunately, many of the primates gave their lives to science. The monkey Albert I, who was launched in a V-2 rocket, apparently suffocated before he even got off the ground. His successor, Albert II, completed his ascent but died on the return impact.
Some of the first animals launched into space were fruit flies. Fruit flies are easy to study for chromosomal damage, and so they were ideal for detecting the effects of radiation in spaceflight. In 1947, a container of fruit flies soared to an altitude of 106 miles before parachuting back to Earth. The year before, the National Institutes of Health launched a flight containing fungus spores, also to study the effects of radiation, but the spores’ containers were never recovered. Some later missions contained a wide variety of animals: A Soviet flight in August 1960 was launched with two dogs, two rats, 40 mice, 15 flasks of fruit flies and plants, and one gray rabbit. Each animal was included to further test the possible effects of space travel on humans. The first cat was launched in 1963, when the French wanted to give space flight a try. It’s unclear why, exactly, the Iranians had previously launched turtles and worms—it may be that Iranian scientists just are used to studying those creatures.
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Explainer thanks Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs, co-authors of Animals in Space, and Cathleen Lewis of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.