A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Boldly Going Where Monkeys Have Gone Before

Space-monkey-013013  Laika-space-013013
The monkey launched by Iran this week, and Laika in 1957

I recall being in the music room at school having a piano lesson when the principal poked his head around the door to tell the music teacher that the Soviets had just sent a dog into space. It’s a bit like remembering where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Except that I was more upset about the dog.

Since then, and with great respect to all astronauts, I have a problem thinking of them as heroes. Real heroes don’t agree to having unconsenting animals go ahead of them. Real heroes don’t agree to having unconsenting animals go ahead of them.

The trip that Laika took into orbit in November 1957 was one-way only. There wasn’t even a plan to bring her back. We don’t know how long the stray husky-mix from the streets of Moscow survived hurtling around the Earth; only that she came back dead.

Eight years earlier, in 1949, the Americans had tried sending two rhesus monkeys into space (not into orbit). The second of them made it up there, but died in re-entry.

Two years later, the Soviets sent up the first dogs, Tsygan and Dezik. The flight was suborbital, but they did come back alive.

The Americans favored monkeys over dogs, and in May, 1959, Baker and Able became the first monkeys to survive being rocketed into space. They were accelerated to 10,000 miles an hour and experienced gravity forces 38 times what we experience on Earth. Able died a few days later, not from the effects of the flight, but while under anesthesia for unrelated surgery. Baker, who weighed just 11 ounces, went to live in a research facility in Alabama until he died in 1984.

In terms of “boldly going where no one has gone before,” hundreds of other animals have gone ahead of our more famous human “heroes”. And in Iran, this week, another rhesus monkey joined the Hall of Infamy. (The Iranians had already sent two turtles, a rat and some worms.)

Slate magazine offers some insight on the how’s and why’s of animals in space.

[In the Soviet Union], 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.

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.

Just to be clear, none of these animals “gave their lives.” Their lives were taken from them.

I’m a fan of space travel, and I follow everything I can that’s to do with the latest news from Mars. But it’s especially nice to know that the astronauts there are rovers, not Rovers. I hope they’ll keep it that way.