Ep. 447: Animals in Space Pt. 3: Dogs, Monkeys and More

For the final episode in our 3-part episode about animals in space, we look at the largest animals to go to orbit. And I’ll just warn you now, this is going to be a really sad episode.
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Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 447: Animals in Space, Part Three; Cats, Monkeys, Primates. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Fraser: Good. You watch me do that intro now with bated breath.
Pamela: I do.
Fraser: I know. It’s a complicated title. I’m an absolute professional now. I never mess this up. It’s right there in my head.
Pamela: I think you just cursed yourself for next week.
Fraser: I totally did. So, before we get on with today’s episode, I want to give a huge thank you to all of the patrons that came on board. Wow, what an amazing contribution. I’ve got some names that I want to say a special thank you too. I’m not sure where we’ll put this from this point forward, but really for–
Pamela: It’s gonna be on the website on the credits page.
Fraser: I think we’re also gonna say it in the show as well, near the end. So, I just want to say a big thank you to Helge Bjorkhaug, Bill Hamilton, Charles White, Matt Woods, Chad Colopy, Bjarte Foshaug, Greg Guthman, Joe Kouveras, Arthur Latz-Hall, Frank Tippin, Clem Unger, Tracy Anne, James Polley, and Less Howard for coming in at some of the higher levels on Patreon. It means that absolute world to us. So, thank you so much for joining our Patreon. If you want to join the Astronomy Cast Patreon, go to Patreon.com/astronomycast.
There are some really cool things in there, even office hours with Pamela. So, you should go and check that out. Alright, onto the show. For this final episode of our three part look at animals in space, we look at the largest animals to go to orbit – apart from humans of course. I’m just warning you now this one’s gonna be a little sad. So, I actually mentioned I said cats, monkeys, primate. I didn’t mention dogs, but actually, dogs are one of the big and saddest parts of this episode. So, we should mention the dogs.
Pamela: I banished mine so he won’t have to hear this episode.
Fraser: Oh, poor Eddie. So, when last we saw our heroes, we were sending mice and other small critters to space, but the rocket program I guess in the early days, right? The Soviets really pioneered putting larger and larger creatures into space. Let’s talk about some of the first mammalstronauts that went up to space.
Pamela: Well, the first mammal I think was the August 31, 1950, launch of a mouse, which was on a V-2. Actually, I take that back. There was a 1949 launch of a rhesus monkey. So, I don’t know why they sent the monkey before the mouse, but they did.
Fraser: Because it’s kind of like a human and let’s just see what happens and who cares what happens to the monkey. Go.
Pamela: Yeah, so this is at the point where we were still launching stolen Nazi spacecraft basically. So, we tried to launch Albert I and killed him. That was a rhesus monkey. We then tried again with Albert II and we were able to put a monkey into space on a V-2 rocket.
Fraser: So, that would be on some kind of suborbital trajectory here – V-2?
Pamela: Yeah. This is suborbital. So, Albert II made it to 83 miles up. He made it back down and he died on impact because – like so many model rockets – there was failure to deploy the parachute. This kind of makes sense. V-2s were designed to destroy things and they retrofit the V-2s to add parachutes to have slightly gentler, less explosive and damaging landings, but survival and landing is one of those things you need to kind of bake into the system from when you start building it.
Fraser: Right. They replaced the warhead with a monkey and didn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen to the monkey.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: Okay. Now, this was the Americans that did this?
Pamela: This was the Americans.
Fraser: Right, okay.
Pamela: So, the Americans launched a bunch of monkeys and two-thirds of them died on impact, due to failure to deploy a parachute.
Fraser: Two-thirds of them, yeah.
Pamela: So, it turns out that our testing of whether or not going to space would kill you succeeded in killing monkeys because we couldn’t build deploying parachutes.
Fraser: They hadn’t even gotten to the part to find out if they could get up into space. It was really just like it turns out crashing onto the planet is–
Pamela: Does kill you. It really does.
Fraser: It does kill you. So, really they figured that one out.
Pamela: Yes, over and over and–
Fraser: Do you know how many launches they did?
Pamela: They did a lot. I haven’t been able to find exact numbers tallied in one place, just the ominous sentence, “The death rate among monkeys at this stage was very high. About two-thirds of all monkeys launched in the ‘40s and ‘50s died on missions or soon after landing.”
Fraser: Right, right, okay and that’s what the Americans were up to. What were the Soviets up to at the same time?
Pamela: They were killing dogs.
Fraser: They were killing dogs?
Pamela: Yeah. So, this is one of those episodes where we’re starting to get to pointless death, which I’m not a fan of. In past episodes, we talked about geology killing you. There’s no controlling that. It just happens.
Fraser: That sounds like a pointless death, but I understand. I mean that’s from a cold and unfeeling universe. I understand that as opposed to–
Pamela: Right, a cold and unfeeling engineer.
Fraser: Right, as opposed to an engineer just kind of going, “I wonder what happens when you smash a monkey into the ground?”
Pamela: Yeah, and I’m sure that the engineers were extremely devastated. So, I do want to be entirely fair that these folks were not intending to kill monkeys, dogs, and other critters this way. It was there was a space race going on. People were being pushed to launch things, launch them quickly, test things out in every way possible and they didn’t have time to perfect the parachutes and then figure out if space was healthy for humans. They needed to perfect both at once.
So, July 22, 1951, Russia launched Dezik and Zhegan, which means gypsy. So, Gypsy and Dezik is how we’ve Americanized these two dogs and they got them into space flight. They managed to recover them, but one of them actually got killed on a future launch. So, they tried to relaunch a dog.
Fraser: So, their first launches actually were less harmful to their animals, to their dogs?
Pamela: Right. So, yeah they waited to kill one until later. Then, there was Laika who we all know about who, unfortunately, died during flight.
Fraser: So, can you tell the story of Laika?
Pamela: Laika was in the second ever orbiting spacecraft. It was first animal-friendly happy dog, from what I understand. This was on Sputnik number two. So, they were very moving quickly with their space program. The US nicknamed this Muttnik because dog. We’re crazy that way. This was one of those things where it was a “let’s test the technology” flight.
So, they wired Laika up, made sure that Laika was respirating, breathing, heart rate, all that stuff was normal, but then they didn’t have a way to get Laika back and they knew this. So, they anesthetized and, by that I mean killed, like in orbit.
Fraser: There’s a bit of a controversy about the story that originally they said that the dog died, that they had no way to bring an orbital spacecraft back to earth and it was fully expected that when the spacecraft would re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, the dog would perish as the spacecraft came in.
But in the 2000s, the Russian officials actually released a deeper explanation of what happened to Laika and it turns out that actually she probably died from overheating from the launch itself, so what she was in as they went up into space, she probably overheated fairly quickly and it wasn’t the dying from oxygen after several days that originally people had thought it was gonna be. So, I guess the part was that it was a cover-up of a faulty deployment system – not the expected suffocation of the dog – that really killed her.
Pamela: You know at a certain point, it’s a better death than the monkeys that kept dying on impact. So, here’s where it starts to bother me is squirrel monkey named Gordo, a cute, little, happy, American, Navy-trained squirrel monkey, launched on one of the Jupiters in 1958 and they had Gordo wired up for telemetry and he survived ten times the acceleration of gravity during launch.
He was then weightless for eight minutes, happy little Gordon enjoying his weightlessness. He couldn’t actually move. They bundled them up. They were basically swaddled monkeys. Then, during landing – and I use that term loosely yet again – he survived 40 times gravity while reentering at 10,000 miles per hour because the parachute didn’t deploy again.
Fraser: But survived some of that, yeah.
Pamela: Yes, yes, survived yeah the 10G launch, eight minutes of weightlessness, and hit 40Gs before kablooie.
Fraser: What came next?
Pamela: Well, here we finally have things that survived mostly. We have the monkeys, Able and Miss Baker. These were the first monkeys to survive for a period of time and they again launched on a Jupiter. These were American-born rhesus monkeys. What I find interesting is Able came from Independence, Kansas, while Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, came from Peru. So, we had an immigrant monkey flying with an American-born monkey and everything went well.
They went into orbit. They came back. Unfortunately, poor Able got an infection from his medical probes and they lost him. He died. Now, Miss Baker, she then went onto become a museum occupant. So, she survived and then got behind glass with a sign that said, “Do not tap” and was tapped at for decades to come and she died in the 1980s.
Fraser: Right and I know that they had attempted – This was sort of because you had a mammal – a primate – that had gone to space and returned. They tried mating her with other monkeys to see what would happen. Would that be successful? I believe it was.
Pamela: Yeah, so she got to live a very happy, little squirrel monkey life in a very happy, little place in the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. So, things got going a little bit better and it was one of these things where we just kept launching things. America kept launching monkeys. Russia kept launching dogs. ’59 we had two more dogs, a rabbit in space, and again all they’re doing with this is testing, “Do things survive and come back?”
Fraser: Not “Can they thrive into a strong, extra-planetary colony of space dogs and space rabbits?” but just “Can the go up, breath, come back down?”
Pamela: It started to get kind of ridiculous. In 1960 on Sputnik V, there was the partridge in a pear tree launch essentially. It carried two dogs, Belka and Strelka, a gray rabbit, 40 mice, two rats, and 15 flasks of fruit flies, also some plants. So, they just kept launching things to see if they could return them alive. They were able with Sputnik V to bring everything back alive. They even bred the dogs, giving one of the puppies to Carolyn Kennedy.
Fraser: You could still get a descendant to this day.
Pamela: You can. You can. These are things you can do.
Fraser: I actually – on a completely separate note – I have space tomatoes.
Pamela: Yes, from the ‘80s, yeah. I remember that.
Fraser: Yeah, so there were tomatoes that went to space and they brought the seeds back down and then bred them and then you can actually just grow space tomatoes and they are directly connected to tomatoes that have been to space on board the space shuttle.
Pamela: Yeah, that was a big program for a lot of elementary schools.
Fraser: Yeah, so every year, I grow space tomatoes.
Pamela: But that at least has a whole lot of scientific outcomes of, “Yes, tomatoes can survive outer space.”
Fraser: It turns out, yeah.
Pamela: What gets me is each nation chose a different critter to focus on. So, France decided to get into the game in 1963 and started launching cats.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So, we had France launched the cat Felicette. I don’t speak French. I have no clue which of these letters should be silent. This is what happens when you learn from books, rather than from talking.
Fraser: Felicette.
Pamela: Okay, Felicette. That was on a sounding rocket and there were several more cats to follow. They did end up killing one due to delay in recovering the capsule, which is another sad and unfortunate way to die, but all of these were towards the point of proving things don’t die simply from going to space. They die from engineering failures. So, we successfully proved a whole lot of, “Yes, life will initially live when sent into outer space.”
Fraser: If done right.
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: Right? So, if you get the launch safe, you make it up to orbit, you detach from your stages, you orbit the earth, you return to the atmosphere, your parachute deploys, and your capsule is recovered, then the inhabitants are probably alive and fine and, if you mess up any of those pieces, then you get deaths.
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: In both animal form and human form.
Pamela: Yes. So, having essentially gone through and proven if you launch things and you don’t crash them back into the earth, they will probably live. The question started to become one of, “Okay, can we launch things into space and then have them actually think and interact and do things?” because astronauts need to be able to do things.
So, this is where we started going with chimpanzees because chimpanzees you can train and these were very young chimpanzees that they were sending up simply because chimpanzees – when they’re young – are easier to work with. So, there were three-year-olds that were trained. One of them came to be known as Ham. This stands for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center at Holloman Air Force–
Fraser: I didn’t know that.
Pamela: Yup.
Fraser: I thought it was just his name was Ham, but I didn’t know that it actually he was an acronym.
Pamela: He was another immigrant animal. He was born in Cameroon. He was caught by animal trackers and actually taken to a rare bird farm in Miami, Florida, where he was purchased by the Air Force. So, the Air Force buys their chimps essentially out of the pet trade – or at least they did in the ‘50s – and Ham was trained to pull levers, to do all sorts of different tasks and, if he did them correctly, he got a banana treat. If he did them incorrectly, he got zotted with electricity.
Yeah, the stakes were high for Ham. So, they launched him. He came back. He survived and he actually got to go on and live in the National Zoo for many, many years.
Fraser: I think the part that’s really interesting with this is that scientists and engineers had no idea if the human body would function. They had gotten to the point now where they knew that if you were in a rocket, an animal seems to go up to space and return, but would you be doing anything but being in terrible, wracking pain for that entire duration?
It turns out so this is why you taught this chimp to pull levers to get his tasty banana treat was that he was pulling levers for the duration of his space flight, getting banana treats, pulling levers, to show that a human being – for example, an Alan Shepard – would have to pull levers and try to function while they were going through space.
Pamela: So, here we finally start to get to some of the more happy stories of Ham launched. He essentially got rescued from the pet trade by the Air Force, put through intensive training, sent into space where he pulled things and pushed things and didn’t get zotted by electricity, and then he came back and he got to live with a happy other colony of chimps and he was in the National Zoo for a while and he got to live a happy, socialized chimp life.
Now, when he passed away, they did dissect him. They wanted to study essentially what happened. Were there any noticeable differences to his anatomy? They initially had the bad idea that they were then going to taxidermy his fur and put him in the Smithsonian. Luckily, the public said no.
Fraser: Really?
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: I didn’t know that either.
Pamela: One of the more creepy factoids I’ve now learned is they buried all of him, except for the bones. I now want to know where his bones are. They buried all of him except for his bones at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in New Mexico.
Fraser: Why would he not have his bones?
Pamela: I’m assuming that they were used for science.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah I guess.
Pamela: Yeah, yeah.
Fraser: Right. Now was Ham the sort of first and last chimp that was used in space flight?
Pamela: He was followed by other chimps. Enos the chimpanzee was perhaps one of the best additional well-known ones. He was the second chimpanzee launched by NASA and he got to go all the way around the planet. So, he achieved orbit. He was actually the third hominid to achieve orbit because you had–
Fraser: Yuri Gagarin and then John Glenn and then this chimp?
Pamela: No, it wasn’t John Glenn. It was Yuri Gagarin – and the pause was how do you pronounce that first name? I’m sorry folks. This is one of those episodes where you learn I read more than I speak. It was Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. So, there were two Soviets and then Enos that orbited the earth.
So, happy, little Enos was again also acquired from the Miami Rare Bird Farm and he went through hours and hours and hours of training at the University of Kentucky and also at Hollman Air Force Base. He got to orbit twice. He was supposed to orbit three times except the capsule was overheating and luckily they decided not to kill him – so, yeah.
Fraser: That was thoughtful.
Pamela: Yeah, and so they brought him back and so basically he was the dress rehearsal for John Glenn. So, they sent up Enos and he did his thing in the Mercury capsule and then he came back. So, Mercury-Atlas 5, have monkey will travel or, in this case, have ape will travel.
Fraser: Little known fact, John Glenn also did astronauting for banana treats.
Pamela: Really?
Fraser: No, not really.
Pamela: Okay. You know for all I knew–
Fraser: And to avoid electrical shock.
Pamela: For all I knew, they had freeze dried ice cream and banana treats.
Fraser: And banana treats, yup.
Pamela: I was willing to go with that. So, unfortunately, Enos didn’t live as long as Ham because he caught dysentery. So, it was a few months after he returned to earth he got quite sick and passed away. His body bits were, unfortunately, discarded.
Fraser: So, I mean I think at this point we’ve got some more Russian dogs coming out of the Soviets and you’ve got various experiments. I know there were some tortoises were sent to space. The US sent another monkey to space, but sort of the heyday of these animals was really during the ‘50s and the ‘60s as they were moving through this, “What happens to the human body? What happens to the mammalian body when it goes to space to orbit for short and longer periods of time?”
Then, I guess once they had solved that and gotten humans to go into space and saw that they could come back safely, the need to send them on these kinds of missions ramped up. Now you had the biggest monkey of all.
Pamela: The human.
Fraser: The human. But it’s a pretty sad period I think when you think about what happened to some of those animals and just what a freak out it must have been for them, the kinds of forces involved, the temperatures, the weightlessness.
Pamela: My dog gets confused by elevators.
Fraser: Right, yeah, yeah, so imagine an elevator that falls so quickly he floats in microgravity? Are they still testing animals or is that period over now?
Pamela: Well, the testing animals insofar as “Can you eat, drink, respirate, digest, those basics?” That they figured out and nowadays when we’re testing rockets, well apparently if you’re SpaceX, you test them with cheese.
Fraser: Yes.
Pamela: So, the need to launch science research animals in order to test the basics has been relieved and like so much scientific research, it turns out that for animal studies, we don’t need to use primates. We don’t need to use dogs. I’m not sure we ever really needed to use cats. Cats aren’t very good research subjects quite often.
Fraser: I mean it does answer that age-old question of if a cat is weightless, which way does it fall?
Pamela: And there’s some fabulous YouTube video of that that was taken on the Vomit Comet, where they start out at normal gravities. They’re just picking up cats and dropping them and watching them land on their paws and they keep doing this in a steady rhythm and, as they hit microgravity, the cats are like, “Oh, dear.” You hear cat’s expletive essentially through body language. So, you can do things like that on the Vomit Comet.
There’s a variety of different aircraft they use. I think the C-180 is one of the ones they use, but I could be wrong. That wasn’t prep for this episode. They can use aircraft on parabolic orbits that allow people to experience microgravity while the aircraft is in freefall. So, they do that with various “Will this kill them” types of simple questions. But the animal models that they need for many other things; the questions of skin, the questions of bone, the questions of immune system you can start to do with much simpler animals.
The fruit fly has over 70 genetic components in common with human beings. So, at that level, fruit flies I’m not sure anyone in a science lab has truly mourned the death of a single fruit fly, but we do get attached to our monkeys, our cats, our dogs, our tortoises. So, it’s better to use the fruit flies when you can and save the higher life forms for more complex problems.
Fraser: Yeah. Alright, well this wraps up our three-part series on Animals in Space, the saddest episode. Next week, I don’t know what we’ll talk about. We’re back to a blank slate. I got some ideas.
Pamela: We sent one idea last week to Susie and I’m sure she’ll remind us of what it was.
Fraser: Right, because we don’t. Alright, thanks, Pamela.
Pamela: Thank you very much.
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[End of Audio]
Duration: 29 minutes

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