Animals In Space: Even Scarier Than "Gravity"

Returning to Earth in 1960 after a one-day trip aboard the satellite Sputnik 5, Soviet space dogs Belka and Strelka were hailed national heroes: Postal stamps were issued bearing their image; Strelka's puppy was later given as a gift to JFK's daughter; long after their deaths, they inspired Russia's first 3D animated film, Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs. But the space pups' grand achievement wasn't discovering an alien species or preventing a catastrophic asteroid collision, rather -- unlike the dozens of dogs, monkeys and mice who perished in spaceflight before them -- they simply survived.

Early animals sent into orbit were like canaries in a coal mine, used to confirm the viability of humans in space. International space programs launched a variety of animals -- dogs, cats, monkeys, mice, spiders, frogs, newts and guinea pigs -- before the U.S. moon landing and every other human mission into orbit.

Laika, the first dog to orbit the earth But just eight years after Belka and Strelka's flight, concerns over the biological viability of spaceflight were quickly settled. Nearly 30 years later, NASA's 1996 Sundowner Report, a set of guidelines for using non-human creatures in spaceflight, should have marked the end of the animals in space. The committee concluded that studies "should involve the minimum number [of animals] required to obtain valid scientific result" -- the ideal being zero. It seemed that the only creatures rocketed into the sky would be humans -- until Iran came along.

By 2010, newly independent Iran celebrated its 30th independence day by launching worms, a mouse and two turtles into space. This test didn't make headlines; insects and other small animals typically come back unharmed, and their use is still common practice with NASA and other agencies. The nascent Iranian Space Agency's launch was a relative blip on the radar of international space activity. But three years later, the ISA upped the ante by announcing they had deployed a monkey, which had supposedly returned safely. This marked the first non-human primate sent into space in decades, leading PETA to condemn the test. Activist pressure, coupled with a report that the launch might have been faked, cemented public opinion that the mission was an amateur hoax and inhumane science. "It's a good guess they tried a launch and it didn't go well." Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said at the time. "But we really don't have any details."

Albert II, one of the first monkeys sent into space, did not make it back / NASA Despite bungling the monkey mission, the ISA broke its radio silence in September by announcing their plans to launch a cat into space (a Persian naturally). One might expect activist groups to organize large protests against this sort of thing -- a major government organization commandeering monkeys and cats for historically fatal experiments. While PETA did lead the successful charge to stop NASA radiating test monkeys in 2010, this time they issued a brief opposing statement and then...crickets.

Without legal recourse against the ISA, anyone concerned wondered: Why would a nation conduct the kind of experiments abandoned by every other country decades ago, sending a household pet on a kamikaze mission into space?

"It's not necessary," Humane Society International president Andrew Rowan told us. Rowan, who chaired the NASA group that authored the Sundowner Report, says that Iran's animal missions are "a waste of time, intellectual capacity and money. There's masses of data in the published literature on the effects of space on living creatures," Rowan said. "This is about bragging rights."

Besides their motives being unscientific, some say that their science is too. "Using animals for flight tests as a precursor to astronauts is a violation of the ‘test as you fly' risk management approach," said April Evans, an ex-NASA engineer who resigned in protest of her former employer's plans to test monkeys with dangerous radiation in 2010. "Keeping a cat alive during a test flight isn't enough to prove a space system is safe for humans."

"When NASA and the Soviets and French were originally launching animals into space the primary purpose was to test if space in general was survivable, not to test their vehicle like Iran is doing," she said. "Does our digestive process depend on gravity? Would humans die from radiation exposure? Dogs and primates were used to answer these questions, and they were answered decades ago."

Sam, a monkey successfully sent up by the U.S. in 1959 / NASA There's something poetic about sending animals into space. If the whole point of interstellar travel -- the science, the international competition, the Myth Of The Astronaut -- is underlied by our search for other life forms, for confirmation that we are not alone in the universe, it makes sense that we would send up other life forms too; we send out what we hope to find. Unfortunately, cultural imagination and reality are two very different things. A trip into space is no picnic for humans, let alone creatures without a clue why they are suddenly rocketing into the sky. "They're being strapped down into these capsules. It's terrifying for them," said Justin Goodman, director of lab investigations at PETA. "They don't understand what's going on."

click to play video

While scientists and activists agree that Iran's animal missions are outdated and unnecessary, it seems nothing will prevent them from continuing on their space mission. Even the State Department -- which criticized the ISA after their first monkey launch, saying Iran could be in violation of a UNSC resolution that bars them from "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology" -- can't stop the country's space plans: last December, the ISA launch another monkey into space.

click to play video