Friday, July 8, 2011

A Salute to Space Animals

As you’re probably aware, the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final launch today, marking an end to the shuttle program and the start of an open-ended hiatus for manned American space flight. As commonplace as shuttle missions now seem, it’s important to remember how many animals blasted off into the unknown and in many cases gave their lives to help advance space programs throughout the world.

Baker, the first monkey to survive space flight.
 The first animals launched into space were fruit flies aboard a United States V2 rocket in 1947 to explore high-altitude radiation exposure, followed just a few years later by a rhesus monkey named Albert II in 1949.

Laika, the first dog to enter orbit.
In 1957, a Russian dog named Laika became the first animal to enter orbit aboard Sputnik 2. Unfortunately, at the time the technology to reenter the atmosphere from orbit did not yet exist, and Laika was unable to survive the mission. She is memorialized by a statue and plaque at the Russian Star City cosmonaut training facility and her likeness has appeared on postage stamps. In 1960, two other Russian dogs named Belka and Strelka became the first animals to enter orbit and return alive on Sputnik 5.

Ham the chimp upon recovery from his mission in 1961.
In 1961, chimpanzees entered the space program when Ham the chimp was launched into space as part of the U.S. Mercury-Redstone 2 mission. Ham was trained to pull levers in flight to receive food, proving that it was possible to perform tasks in space. Later that same year another chimp named Enos became the first chimpanzee to enter orbit.

With manned spaceflight becoming possible in the 1960s, animals became less common on missions. However in the decades since, hundreds of animals from tortoises to mice have taken part in missions as part of scientific studies. Even as recently as May, 2011 spiders were taken into orbit on the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavor to study the effects of zero gravity on their behavior.

Space Shuttle Endeavour
 Although the future of space exploration is uncertain, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the brave animals that have helped advance technology and our understanding of the universe.

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