A brief history of animal death in space

Miss Baker, squirrel monkey that went to space

Baker, a squirrel monkey, survived a 1959 trip into space on a Jupiter rocket with her rhesus monkey colleague Able. Many other animals, though, have not been so lucky.

U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Back in July, Russia launched a satellite into space that carried a harem of geckos so scientists could study sex in weightlessness. But bad news came this week with the report that the “sexy space geckos” had not survived the trip.

The pithy moniker may have helped the geckos get publicity, but humans have a long history of sending animals into space. At first, the animals were sent up simply to test the survivability of spaceflight, then how aspects of life in space — such as radiation and weightlessness — might affect animals’ biology. Later, scientific questions — such as how animals might have sex in a weightless environment — drove the choice of creatures sent up.

The first journey, in 1947, was actually a success: Fruit flies carried aboard a V-2 rocket were recovered alive. Since then, however, the success rate has been spotty. About a third of all animals sent up didn’t make it, according to one estimate. (This really shouldn’t be surprising. After all, spaceflight has proved deadly for humans — something to remember before signing up to go to Mars.)

Here’s a list of just some of the spacecraft that have carried animals into space whose biological payloads didn’t survive the journey:

V-2 rockets (1949-50): A rocket carrying Albert II, the second monkey to be sent into space on June 14, 1949, launched successfully, but the animal died on impact when the rocket hit Earth. Albert IV met a similar fate on December 12, 1949, as did a mouse sent up the next year.

Soviet R-1 series (1951-2): The Soviets sent up a total of nine dogs, in combinations of two at a time (some were sent up on more than one trip), on R-1 series rockets in 1951 and 1952. Dezik and Lisa died in September 1951, and two more died during a later failed launch.

Sputnik 2 (1957): Laika is probably the most famous dog to ever go to space. But she not only became famous under an assumed moniker (her real name was Kudryavka), but also the Soviets never had a plan for her survival. They had not figured out a strategy for her re-entry, and Laika died after a few hours in space and eventually burned up with the spacecraft in the outer atmosphere months later.

Thor-able rockets (1958-9): The first of these rockets, Reentry 1, carried a mouse, which was lost with the rocket after launch. Laska, the mouse on Reentry 2, survived 45 minutes of weightlessness, but the nose cone in which she resided was never recovered. Wilkie, the third mouse, was also lost at sea.

Jupiter rockets (1958-9): Gordo, a squirrel monkey, died in December 1958 when the floatation mechanism on his splashdown vehicle malfunctioned. And 14 mice were destroyed when the rocket they were aboard failed its successful launch in September 1959.

Discoverer 3 spy satellite (June 1959): The first crew of four black mice never even made it off the platform. The launch was scrubbed when the mice were discovered dead: Their cage had been sprayed with krylon, which the mice found tasty and licked right up — to their death. The backup mouse crew died when the upper stage of the rocket fired downward.

Korabl Sputnik (1960): These Soviet rockets were precursors to the manned Vostok spacecraft. The first Korabl Sputnik exploded on launch, killing two dogs, Bars and Lisichka. Two more dogs, Pchelka and Muska, along with mice and insects, died when the reentry capsule for Korabl Sputnik 3 burned up.

Atlas E rocket (November 1961): The rocket blew up 35 seconds after launch, killing Goliath, a one-and-a-half-pound squirrel monkey.

Biosatellite series (1966-9): Biosatellite I carried a payload of biological experiments, including insects and frog eggs, but it was never recovered due to a failure of its retrorocket. Biosatellite III carried a male, pig-tailed monkey named Bonnie. He was supposed to fly for 30 days while scientists studied him. But the mission was axed nine days in and Bonnie returned to Earth, only to die eight hours after recovery due to a heart attack brought on by dehydration.

Soviet Zond 6 probe (November 1968): The biological payload of flies, bacteria and turtles successfully flew around the moon, but a lost gasket on the return resulted in a loss of cabin pressure and the death of all of the biological specimens.

Soviet Bion life science satellites (1987-92): In September 1987, Bion 8 carried two monkeys that survived the flight and several fish that did not. The vehicle missed its touchdown by 1,850 miles and frigid weather proved deadly for the fish. Temperature issues on board Bion 9 resulted in the deaths of ants and earthworms. And seven of 15 tadpoles on Bion 10 also died.

Space shuttle Columbia (2003): The shuttle broke up on reentry on February 1, tragically killing all seven members of the human crew. Also on board were silkworms, spiders, bees, ants and fish, many of which were part of studies looking at how gene expression changes in space. The only survivors were microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans roundworms.

Fobos-Grunt mission (November 2011): The Russian spacecraft was supposed to carry tardigrades — tiny animals able to survive extreme conditions — to Mars but failed to make it out of Earth’s orbit. The craft fell back to the surface in December 2012. There was no word on whether the invertebrates survived the trip.

Foton-M4 satellite (2014): Last but not least, the Russian satellite carried one male and four female geckos as part of an experiment looking at reptile reproduction in microgravity. A month after launch, the Russians lost control of the satellite. They later regained control, but after the satellite returned to Earth, they found the geckos’ bodies mummified: The geckos appear to have frozen to death.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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