Sadly, we continue to exploit, abuse and neglect animals for a variety of reasons and with varying levels of harm. This cruelty, exacerbated by people looking the other way and failing to confront the problem, takes many different forms, including wilful abuse, neglect, human predation, animal testing and exploitation (usually for monetary gain). To our eternal shame, we continue to inflict pain, fear, and desperation on sentient creatures who share our planet and have the capacity for engaging in strong and diverse social relationships. At a time when we are also transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so drastically that thousands of plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, we need to address our role and relationship with nature.
This article focuses on some of the animals who were lauded for their coerced contributions to the conquest of space. They will no doubt be celebrated for centuries to come, but the acclaim they enjoy came at a high price, one that is not widely appreciated.
The first creatures launched into space were some fruit flies way back in February 1947. The historic trip was made on a V-2 rocket originally designed by the Nazis. On the V-2’s descent back to Earth, the flies were lowered to safety by parachute and scientists were relieved to find that they were still alive. It was an auspicious start, but it did not last too long. Encouraged by the discovery that cosmic radiation had had no genetic effect on the flies, biologists proceeded to launch other creatures on such excursions. Numerous hamsters, mice and monkeys were catapulted into space throughout the next decade. Sadly, though, many of them did not make it back alive.
The first mammal in space was Albert II, a Rhesus monkey. Anaesthetised during flight and implanted with sensors to measure his vital signs, Albert reached a height of 83 miles on June 14, 1949, but died upon impact on re-entry.
The Soviet Union stunned the world on November 3, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 2 carrying a mixed-breed dog named Laika (a Russian word for breeds of dog similar to huskies). American reporters dubbed her Muttnik. She is now famous for being the first mammal in orbit. No plans had been made for Sputnik 2’s return and it burned up on re-entry. At the core of Laika’s story is a dark lie. Despite claims by Soviet scientists that she had survived in space for almost a week before dying peacefully, in fact she had died in harrowing circumstances within hours of take-off, because a fan had failed and biotelemetry data indicated that the poor dog had become utterly distressed in the overheating capsule.
In 1961, Enos the chimpanzee underwent 1263 hours of training for a flight designed to test equipment and procedures. Much of that training involved avoidance conditioning whereby electric shocks were administered to the soles of his feet if he pulled one of three levers incorrectly. During the flight, one of the levers malfunctioned and Enos was subjected to 76 unwarranted shocks. To add to his woes, a faulty thruster leaking fuel resulted in the capsule touching down hundreds of kilometres from the planned touchdown point. By the time Enos was recovered, he had broken through the protective belly panel and had forcibly (and painfully) removed the urinary catheter while the balloon was still inflated. He died of dysentery a little less than a year later.
Unfortunately, there are many more such tragic tales relating to animal astronauts. Several of them are well-known within popular culture and have lasting memorials, but very few people are aware of the ordeals they were forced to endure to facilitate human exploration of space. We cannot justify it.