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Laika, a stray dog found on a Moscow street, was the world’s first cosmonaut. Photo: Alamy

The first animals in space: Russian dogs, French cats and US monkeys

China had a secret mission more than 50 years ago to send two dogs into space, and their journeys helped blaze a trail for the country’s human space exploration programme, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has revealed.

Afterwards, space authorities decided not to continue using large animals for space experiments because it wasn’t worth it – the data was too unreliable.

But other countries such as the United States and Russia had already sent many animals into space, and continued to do so – and for some of them it was a one-way trip. From dogs and cats to fish and guinea pigs, we take a look at the role of animals in space exploration.


Laika was the first dog, and the first animal, to orbit the Earth. A stray dog found on a Moscow street, she flew with the Sputnik 2 rocket on November 3, 1957 but died hours into the flight.

“Of course we knew she was destined to die on the flight, since there was no way to get her back – this wasn’t possible at the time,” Russian biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, the dog’s trainer, was quoted as saying in a report commemorating the 60th anniversary of the dog’s space journey last year.

“I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time.”

They had hoped Laika would survive for up to 10 days but she died of panic, overheating and dehydration after a few hours.

Still, the nine orbits Laika’s rocket made around the Earth made the dog the world’s first cosmonaut.

Three years later, on August 19, 1960, Russia sent two more dogs – Belka and Strelka – into space, and this time they survived, returning safely the following day.

Belka and Strelka survived their voyage into space in 1960. Photo: Alamy


In the late 1940s, the US started putting monkeys on V-2 rockets. On June 14, 1949, Albert II became the first monkey in space but died from the impact of re-entry to Earth. Media reports said the animal might have survived if not for a parachute malfunction.

Other monkeys that America sent on space voyages in the years after Albert II also died during the journey. A monkey named Yorick was the first to survive a US space voyage, but he died from overheating while waiting to be released from his cramped capsule.

Rhesus monkey Sam made it into space on the Little Joe-2 spacecraft in 1959. Photo: Nasa


France sent the first cat into space in October 1963. But it is unclear whether it was Felix or Felicette who survived a 15-minute journey about 200km above Earth and back again on a liquid-fuelled Véronique AG1 rocket. One version of the story is that street cat Felix escaped at the last minute and was replaced by a female cat called Felicette. Felix or Felicette, it returned safely and was kept for several months at the space programme’s laboratory before being euthanised to study the physiological effects of the space voyage, according to media reports.

Felicette (or Felix) survived the journey into space and back. Photo: AFP


A pair of Atlantic killifish – also called mud minnows or mummichog – went up with Nasa’s Skylab 3 mission in July 1973, the first fish species to make, and survive, the voyage into space. They were selected because of their ability to survive extreme conditions. In the absence of gravity, the two fish relied on artificial light to tell them which direction was up.


Two turtles aboard the Soviet Zond 5 unmanned spacecraft in September 1968 not only made it into space, they also circled the moon before returning safely to Earth – the first creatures to do so. They lost about 10 per cent of their weight during the week-long flight.


Nasa sent two bullfrogs into orbit in 1970 to see how they would react to weightlessness. The researchers obtained the data they wanted, but the bullfrogs did not make it back – the spacecraft was not recovered.

Guinea pigs

The first guinea pigs entered space on March 9, 1961 aboard the Soviet Sputnik 9. Other passengers on the spacecraft included a dog, some mice and reptiles. They all came back alive.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: not quite a dog’s life for animals in space