What Animals Have Been to Space?

When we think of astronauts, we think of humans. But there have been plenty of animals who have traveled in space as well.

When we think of spaceflight, we think astronauts. You’re a human, you perceive the Universe with your human-centric attitudes. You… specist.

The reality is that the vast number of living things sent to space were our animal buddies. This is a tough topic to hit, as it’s kinda sad. More sensitive animal loving viewers might want might to skip this one, or at least grab some tissue. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

We’ve thrown so many different kinds of animals into space, a better question might be: what animals haven’t been in space? It’s a Noah’s Ark salad of living things.

Mice, monkeys, fish, reptiles, frogs, insects, dogs, and of course, those hardy hardy tardigrades, who laugh at the rigors of spaceflight, and eat vacuum for breakfast. We’ve brought them all home safe and sound. Well, some of them. A good number of them. All the tardigrades are fine. I think.

At the beginning of the space age, scientists sent a series of animals in high altitude balloons to test the physical demands of spaceflight. Scientists had no idea whether creatures could even survive high altitude or radiation, so they sent insects, mammals and even primates nearly halfway to space.

This is how we roll. Mostly we make all kinds of weird assumptions about what might happen, and really it’s better to send a handful of bugs than a person. When we first worked out flight, there were concerns all the air would get sucked out of our lungs and we’d just pass out. Sometimes we get a little freaked out.

This high altitude business all seemed to go well enough. So they packed the poor creatures, I mean our brave animal adventurer friends onto left-over German V-2 rockets and fired them on ballistic trajectories, including a few monkeys.

The Russians… oooh, Russians… were the first to send dogs into space, with Tsygan and Dezik. They didn’t actually reach orbit, and were both brought home safely. Good dogs!

Sputnik 2
Laika inside Sputnik 2

Here’s the one you’re waiting for… Laika was launched aboard the second spacecraft to ever orbit the Earth, Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. At that point, scientists weren’t sure if humans could even survive spaceflight, or if we’d just dissolve after soiling our space pantaloons.

Oh, you hu-mans. Soviets chose the toughest dog they could find, a stray mutt they found living on the streets of Moscow. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, I could.

If I did, I’d make it more like, they went to the toughest dog bar in all of Moscow and met the bouncer, Laika at a high stakes winner take all poker-slash-Russian roulette game for all the bones, in a dark smokey dog house in the back.

Originally, it was reported Laika lasted 6 days in orbit, but in 2002, it was uncovered that she actually died shortly after launch. Either way, Laika was doomed, as technology to recover a capsule from space was still a few years off. Apparently there was some kind of race on.

Five months after launch, Sputnik 2 burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and Laika’s name still lives on to this day in legend.

In the 50s and 60s, there was a whole series of monkeys sent to space. A third survived their flights and then went on to live long monkey lives, reminiscing about their days of monkey glory hanging out in the primate version of that bar in “The Right Stuff”.

In 1961, Ham the Chimp was sent into space on board a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Ham was trained to believe he was flying the spacecraft. The brave little tyke demonstrated that human astronauts could do the same, as long as they were rewarded with fruit.

Three months later, Alan Shepard followed in Ham’s footsteps, becoming the first American in space. Whether the fruit rewards program was retained is classified.

Chimps in Space
Ham, the Chimpanzee

From that point on, it was a river of living things traveling into space: crickets, ants, spiders, newts, frogs, fish, jellyfish, sea urchins, snails and shrimp.

Even cockroaches. Seriously, somebody thought that would be a good idea. I suspect it was part of some kind of secret Atomic SuperRoach program.

One of the most poignant stories of animals traveling to space has got to be the nematode worms that flew to orbit with the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

When the shuttle tore up on re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts, the nematode worms survived the re-entry and crash landing. There were 60 other science experiments on board Columbia, many of which included animals: fish, insects, spiders, bees and even silk worms. Only the nematodes survived.

It wasn’t the originals that they found. Nematodes have a lifecycle of 7-10 days, so the ones they discovered were probably 5th generation removed from the initial spaceketeers.

As you can see, we aren’t the only creatures to go to space. In fact, we’re the minority. Space belongs to the tardigrades, mice and nematode worms.

I for one welcome our horrible waterbear overlords.

Okay, I’m going to brace myself for this one. Do you think it’s ethical to use animals in spaceflight? Tell us your opinion in the comments below.

Columbia’s Demise 11 Years Ago Today Sparked Regular Shuttle Inspections In Space

The Columbia’s shuttle fiery end came as the STS-107 astronauts’ families were waiting runway-side for everyone to come home. NASA’s oldest space shuttle broke up around 9 a.m. Eastern (2 p.m. UTC) on Feb. 1, 2003, scattering debris along east Texas and nearby areas. Its demise was captured on several amateur video cameras, many of which were rebroadcast on news networks.

In the next four months, some 20,000 volunteers fanned out across the southwest United States to find pieces of the shuttle, coming up with 85,000 pieces (38% of the shuttle) as well as human remains. Meanwhile, investigators quickly zeroed in on a piece of foam that fell off of Columbia’s external tank and struck the wing. A seven-month inquiry known as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board eventually yielded that as the ultimate cause of the shuttle’s demise, although there were other factors as well.

The disaster killed seven people: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon (who was Israel’s first astronaut.) At a time when most shuttles were focused on building the International Space Station, this crew’s mandate was different: to spend 24 hours a day doing research experiments. Some of the work was recoverable from the crew’s 16 days in space.

Columbia’s demise brought about several design changes in the external tank as NASA zeroed in on “the foam problem.” NASA put in a new procedure in orbit for astronauts to scan the shuttle’s belly for broken tiles using the robotic Canadarm and video cameras; shuttles also flew to the International Space Station in such a way so that astronauts on station could take pictures of the bottom.

Return-to-flight mission STS-114 in July-August 2005 yielded more foam loss than expected. Then NASA found something. For a long time, workers at the Michoud Assembly Facility were blamed for improper foam installation after partial tests on external tanks, but an X-ray analysis on an entire tank (done for reasons that are explained in this blog post from then-shuttle manager Wayne Hale) revealed it was actually due to “thermal cycles associated with filling the tank.”

“Discovery flew on July 4, 2006; no significant foam loss occurred. I consider that to be the real return to flight for the space shuttle,” he wrote. “So were we stupid? Yes. Can you learn from our mistake? I hope so.”

The Columbia  crew. From the left: Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Credit: NASA.
The Columbia crew. From the left: Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Credit: NASA.

Remembering Apollo 1’s Tragic Anniversary: ‘It Was Too Late From The Beginning’

On this day (Jan. 27) in 1967, NASA astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a pad fire inside of the Apollo 1 spacecraft that was supposed to lift off only a month hence. The tragedy shocked NASA, which was then aiming for manned landings on the moon, and caused an in-depth investigation into the spacecraft’s construction and the cause of the fire.

Above, you can see one of the first news reports after the fire took place, from ABC’s Jules Bergman and a correspondent at “Cape Kennedy” (which is called Cape Canaveral today, referring to an area adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center where the launch was supposed to take place.) “It was too late from the beginning,” Bergman said in the report, referring to the frantic effort to get the astronauts out of their burning spacecraft.

An investigation determined that a spark flew from somewhere inside of the spacecraft and easily ignited in the pure-oxygen atmosphere, fuelled by fire-friendly materials inside the spacecraft. The astronauts were unable to get out quickly because the hatch was complicated to open. The redesigned Apollo spacecraft featured a swift-to-open hatch, fewer flammable materials, covered electrical connections (to mitigate against short-circuits), and a mixed atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen on the ground.

Safety measures arising from the tragedy did help with saving astronauts on other flights, notably Apollo 13. That mission saw an oxygen tank explode en route to the moon in April 1970.

Every year, NASA has a day of remembrance to commemorate lost crews. The Apollo 1 anniversary marks a solemn week in the agency, as it comes one day before the anniversary of the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts (Jan. 28) and a few days before the 2003 anniversary of the Columbia shuttle breakup, which killed another seven people (Feb. 1).

Four cosmonauts have died during spaceflight, all upon re-entry: Vladimir Komarov (during Soyuz 1 on April 24, 1967) and Georgi Dobrovolskiy, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov (during Soyuz 11 on June 30, 1971).

Training accidents have also claimed a few lives; a list of American ones is maintained at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.

The Apollo 1 capsule after the fire. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 1 capsule after the fire. Credit: NASA

From One Laurel to Another: a Letter from Columbia

STS-107 Mission Specialist Laurel B. Clark (NASA)

On this Day of Remembrance, February 1, 2013, NASA will mark the 10th anniversary of the STS-107 Columbia accident with a wreath-laying ceremony at the astronaut memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, paying tribute to the lost crews of Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1, as well as other space explorers and NASA colleagues who have passed on. Most of us have our own personal memories of the tragic events that took the lives of these brave few who risked everything in the name of exploration, knowledge, and discovery, and I’ve agreed to share one person’s connection to the Columbia crew.

Laurel Nendza, a fellow space blogger over on that social media site that begins with F and rhymes with “acebook” has a particular connection with STS-107 Mission Specialist Laurel B. Clark… if only that they both love space and share the same first name. Still, it’s enough to hang one’s heart on, and Laurel (the blogger) recently posted a particularly touching note that was sent by Laurel (the astronaut) to her family just before Columbia headed back on its ill-fated return trip home. Here’s Laurel’s (and Laurel’s) story:

On February 1, 2003, the seven [STS-107] crew members were lost with the Space Shuttle Columbia over North Texas during the shuttle’s re-entry. They were brave men and women who gave their lives for space exploration.

s107e05167One member has always stood out to me. Her name was Laurel Clark. She would probably agree that growing up there were never any other Laurels around. She may at one time hated her name like I did, only to realize she was actually cool and unique because she was the only one around with that name. But Laurel is not just a name, it’s a personality trait. I know a handful of Laurels (mostly from Facebook) and we all seem to have the same things in common. Most of us always have had deep compassion for animals, the Earth, and the sky above us. Laurel Clark was no different.

What was different about Laurel Clark is that she was just a handful of people on Earth, EVER, who actually achieved what we all dream. She was an astronaut and got to go to outer space. She had the privilege (that she worked very hard to get) to witness our pale blue dot from above as well as breathtaking auroras, lightning, and the Sun and Moon rising.

Before she departed to her last shuttle flight home she sent an email to her family and close friends. She told them of every incredible, awe-inspiring moment she had been a part of. She and the other 6 members who perished in the Columbia tragedy are true heroes and inspirations to all who came after her. They are my inspiration. My dream is to also be able to see my beautiful planet from above, and to see the stars shine bright in all their glory.

s107e05006She was the first Laurel in space, who knows? Maybe one day I will be the next?

Rest in peace all the brave crew of the Shuttle Columbia.

Below is Laurel Clark’s last message to her loved ones on Earth:

“Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring. This is a terrific mission and we are very busy doing science round the clock. Just getting a moment to type e-mail is precious so this will be short, and distributed to many who I know and love.

I have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australis lighting up the entire visible horizon with the cityglow of Australia below, the crescent moon setting over the limb of the Earth, the vast plains of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn, rivers breaking through tall mountain passes, the scars of humanity, the continuous line of life extending from North America, through Central America and into South America, a crescent moon setting over the limb of our blue planet. Mount Fuji looks life a small bump from up here, but it does stand out as a very distinct landmark.

Magically, the very first day we flew over Lake Michigan and I saw Wind Point (Wisconsin) clearly. Haven’t been so lucky since. Every orbit we go over a slightly different part of the Earth. Of course, much of the time I’m working back in Spacehab and don’t see any of it. Whenever I do get to look out, it is glorious. Even the stars have a special brightness.

I have seen my ‘friend’ Orion several times. Taking photos of the earth is a real challenge, but a steep learning curve. I think I have finally gotten some beautiful shots the last 2 days. Keeping my fingers crossed that they’re in sharp focus.

My near vision has gotten a little worse up here so you may have seen pics/video of me wearing glasses. I feel blessed to be here representing our country and carrying out the research of scientists around the world. All of the experiments have accomplished most of their goals despite the inevitable hiccups that occur when such a complicated undertaking is undertaken. Some experiments have even done extra science. A few are finished and one is just getting started today.

s107e05745

Astronaut Laurel B. Clark, STS-107 mission specialist, conducting a check of the YSTRES experiment in the Biopack incubator. Astronaut Rick D. Husband, mission commander, holds a vacuum cleaner to perform general housekeeping duties on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

The food is great and I am feeling very comfortable in this new, totally different environment. It still takes a while to eat as gravity doesn’t help pull food down your oesophagus. It is also a constant challenge to stay adequately hydrated. Since our body fluids are shifted toward our heads our sense of thirst is almost non-existent.

Thanks to many of you who have supported me and my adventures throughout the years. This was definitely one to beat all. I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet.

Love to all, Laurel.”

You can find out more about Laurel Clark and the other STS-107 crew members on the NASA History site here.

Crew walkout for STS107 Credit; Scott Andrews/NASA

The STS-107 crew, waving to onlookers, exited the Operations and Checkout Building on their way to Launch Pad 39A for liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003. Leading the way were Pilot William “Willie” McCool (left) and Commander Rick Husband (right). Following in the second row are Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla (left) and Laurel Clark; in the rear are Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Payload Commander Michael Anderson and Mission Specialist David Brown. All seven perished during re-entry breakup two weeks later on Feb. 1, 2003. (NASA)

See more of Laurel Nendza’s posts on her Facebook page, Stellar Eyes.

At 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 1, NASA TV will provide live coverage of a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial located in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Flags across the agency will be flown at half-staff memory of the Columbia crew and all who have lost their lives in dedication of space exploration.