10 Animal Space Travellers

Before Yuri Gagarin made the historic first orbit around the Earth in 1961, animals had already visited the unknown. They were used to collect medical data and to test the spacecraft’s durability before sending manned missions. Once the survivability of spaceflight was confirmed, humans then began to travel where previously only animals had. Today, we still bring animals to space with us, mainly to test biological processes in a microgravity environment. Perhaps one day in the future we may discover cures for many of the diseases that affect the human population today using the experiments conducted in space. In the meantime however, I have decided to and a look at the different types of animals that have been in space and have listed my Ultimate Top 10 Space Animal Astronauts.

10- Fruit Flies

Although you may not think fruit flies are that exciting, they have the distinction of being the first animals in space! These space pioneers were blasted off on February 20, 1947 aboard a US V-2 rocket. The experiment was to test radiation levels in space. You will be glad to hear that the fruit flies were recovered alive on their return.

9- Mice

I am not a big fan of these little furry little rodents, but they have made my list at number 9. On August 31, 1950, the Americans launched a V-2 rocket containing a mouse. Unfortunately, on return, the parachute system failed and the mouse was killed on impact. China and Russia have also sent many of these little creatures into space. The first rat in space came in February of 1961 when France launched ‘Hector’ the rat. After flying to a height of 93 miles, Hector was successfully recovered.

8- Turtles

Yes, turtles have been into orbit, but not the teenage mutant ninja kind! In fact turtles have actually made it around the Moon. On September 15, 1968, the Soviets launched Zond 5, a spacecraft that included onboard two turtles. On September 18, Zond 5 made a loop around the moon and safely returned to earth on September 21. The turtles made it back alive and well, apart from a little weight loss! The Soviet Soyuz 20 mission, in November 1975, kept tortoises in space for 90.5 days, setting a duration record for animals. Even last year (February 2010) turtles were still being utilised as Iran’s Kavoshgar 3 rocket launch included two turtles, a rat, and some worms.


image of space turtle

To infinity and beyond!



They send many people scurrying for a shoe, but these little creatures have been part of the cargo of spacecrafts since the 1970’s. Arabella and Anita were the first spiders in space in 1973, as part of an experiment on the Skylab 3 mission. The aim was to see if spiders could spin webs in near-weightlessness. Although both spiders died during the mission, showing evidence of dehydration, they did actually successfully make webs. Astronauts have described spiders in space as being very hypnotic as they struggle to weave a symmetric web in zero gravity. When the returned web samples were examined, it was determined that the thread spun in flight were finer than that spun during pre-flight.


6- Cats

France launched a black and white stray tomcat which had been found on the Paris streets on October 18, 1963. This was the first cat in space as the capsule in the rocket’s nose cone separated at 120 miles altitude during the 15 minute flight and descended by parachute. The flight had been Purr-fect (sorry!)

image of nasa cats

Some NASA cats pose for a photograph. (Image credit: NASA)

5- Fish

Mummichogs were the first fish to venture upwards. Used because of their ability to survive extreme conditions, the small aquatic specimens accompanied Skylab 3 in 1973 to provide more information about the otolith organ (inner ear). Many other kinds of fish have also been in space including guppies, zebra danios, carp, swordtails, Japanese killifish, and oyster toadfish, to name but a few.

In 2008 German researchers launched a rocket carrying 72 small fish on a brief space flight to study motion sickness. The thumb-sized cichlids were in an unmanned rocket and were filmed as they swam around weightlessly in small aquariums during the 10-minute space flight.

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Mummichongs were the first fish sent into space

4- Frogs

In 1970, NASA launched a project called the Orbiting Frog Otolith program. This involved them sending two bullfrogs into orbit. The OFO experiment was developed so that scientists could determine how the otolith adapted to weightlessness, much like why fish were sent to space (See animal number 5). The frogs were in space from November 9-15 with researchers collecting important neurophysiological data, however the spacecraft wasn’t recovered.

The “Frog in Space” (FRIS) experiment is another example of frogs used in space experiments when a Japanese cosmonaut took six Japanese tree frogs onto the Space Station Mir for 8 days in December 1990. The behavior of these frogs was observed and recorded under microgravity. It was noted that the frogs took up a “parachuting” posture when drifting in a free volume on Mir. When perched on surfaces, they typically sat with their heads bent backward. But motion sickness did affect the little critters. Note to self…. Never go to space with a frog!

3- Bees

Challenger blasted-off in 1984 with more than 3,000 honeybees on board. Astronaut James Van Hoften was onboard that mission and was in charge of carrying out an experiment to determine how honeybees might make honeycomb cells in a micro-gravity environment. The experiment would also compare the shape, size, volume, and wall thickness of honeycombs constructed in orbit to those built by a ground control group. The lack of gravity didn’t affect the insects, who during NASA’s seven-day mission managed to build honeycombs exactly like they do on Earth! To see NASA’s complete experiment objectives and results click here.

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James Van Hoften keeps a close eye on the bees (Image credit: NASA)

2- Monkeys

Monkeys have been part and parcel of the space program of many countries including the United States, Russia and France. Several species have been used, including rhesus monkeys, cynomolgus monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques and chimpanzees. The first monkey astronaut was called Albert, a Rhesus Monkey, who was launched 63km up into the air on a V2 rocket on June 11, 1948. However this is not above the official height where space begins so it was actually Albert II who became the first monkey in space when he was launched 134km into the air on June 14, 1949 (100km is officially where space begins called the Kármán line). Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, became the first monkey to return back to Earth successfully on May 28, 1959 and lived until 1984. She is buried on the ground of the United States Space and Rocket Center located in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Ham getting ready for his trip into space (Image credit: NASA)


Then came the turn of the chimps, and Ham was the name of the first space chimp. In training for his suborbital flight to space, the four-year-old chimpanzee practiced pulling levers to receive rewards for correct choices. Eventually, Ham was blasted off inside a Mercury capsule on January 31, 1961. His mission was to prove that live animals aboard a spacecraft could carry out their tasks during launch, weightlessness and re-entry. Ham was weightless for a total of 6.6 minutes and he was able to perform his tasks almost perfectly. The success of this mission led directly to the launch of Alan Shepard on America’s first human suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.

France launched Martine, a pig-tailed macaque monkey on March 7, 1967 whilst Russia sent monkey’s into space in the early 1980’s.

1- Dogs

The number one space animal has to be dogs! Although there were many dogs sent to space, the most famous is Laika. Laika (which is a Russian word meaning Barker) was the first animal sent into orbit around the Earth. Blasting off on November 2, 1957 on Sputnik 2, she was said to have been a stray wandering the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists chose to use strays since they assumed that such animals had already learned to endure conditions of extreme cold and hunger.

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The world’s most famous dog, Laika

It had been said that after the successful launch that Laika had lived for up to a week, however new evidence in 2001 revealed she died from overheating and panic just a few hours after the mission started. As there had been no plans to return Laika back to earth, there was a lot of discussion on the ethics of the experiment at the time. At a Moscow press conference in 1998 Oleg Gazenko, a senior Soviet scientist involved in the project, stated “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog…” However no one can take away Laika’s place in history which paved the way for humans in space!

Image of Sinead McNicholl

Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

(Article by Sinead McNicholl)