Skip to content

By Shannon on

Animals in space

We've been talking a lot about human astronauts in space on the blog recently, but what about other living creatures that have boldly gone where no other err, fruit fly has gone before?

Back by popular demand, guest blogger and ‘Barketing’ Assistant Shannon looks back on critters that have flown into infinity, and beyond…

Fruit flies

Oddly enough, you have more in common with a fruit fly than you would think. About 77% of known human disease genes have a recognisable match in the genetic code of fruit flies, which makes them very popular in research labs across the world.

A fruit fly

NASA have taken this one step further, and in December 2014 they sent their first colony of fruit flies up to the International Space Station. NASA designed a special cassette that houses the fruit flies and gives them enough sustenance so that they can successfully reproduce, and at an impressive rate.

The cassettes fit into a camera and lighting unit that records high definition video and also produces a day/night cycle for the flies, so that their experience on the ISS is as natural as possible. Because fruit flies age quickly compared to other animals, the research results are applicable to long duration spaceflight.

During spaceflight, microbes can become more infectious and the immune systems of complex organisms such as humans and fruit flies can weaken. Whilst flying high at 248 miles above Earth, NASA scientists will be using the fruit flies to help understand how spaceflight impairs the body’s ability to fight infections, and truly understand what is happening with the biological mechanisms on a molecular level. They’ll also be simulating Earth’s gravity for some of the fruit flies in order to truly understand what’s happening to the files in space.

The end goal of this research is to understand how to protect human health when sending humans on deep space missions, such as a journey to Mars.

This is a long-term research project so there are no tangible results that can be shared with the public at this moment in time, although the project has now moved into researching the impact of space travel on the cardiovascular system. Shipments of fruit flies are sent up to the ISS on resupply missions and the last batch of fruit flies came back from the ISS in June 2017, aboard the unpiloted SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Read more about the fruit fly experiment

Fun fact

The first animal sent into space was, you’ve guessed it, the humble fruit fly. A colony of flies were launched to an altitude of 42 miles on a V-2 rocket by American military scientists in New Mexico on 20 February 1947.


As a retired greyhound, I’m of the opinion that most other dogs are feckless creatures that are, quite simply, beneath me. This is mainly why I ignore them in the park and refuse to join in with their inane japery. So I was delighted to discover that there have actually been several canines that have contributed to space exploration. Finally, some compatriots I could be proud of!

A few weeks ago I had to wear the cone of shame and was told I ‘looked like Laika’, so I figured this was a good place to start. Evidently the humans need their eyes testing as I look nothing like a stray Soviet street dog from the 1950s.

Laika the dog
Laika, the first dog to go into orbit

There’s a popular misconception around Laika being the first dog ‘in space,’ when in fact she was the first dog to successfully go into orbit. The first dogs in space were Tsygan and Dezik, Soviet hounds launched in 1951 who were successfully recovered after travelling to a maximum altitude of 110 km. Sadly Dezik’s next flight was less successful and he died when his parachute failed to deploy.

But why dogs? Scientists wanted to determine if human space flight was feasible and dogs were the obvious choice as we’re easy to train (well, some of us are) and it was thought that we’d be well suited to long periods of inactivity.

So, back to Laika. She was the first dog to orbit the Earth in 1957 on board Sputnik 2. Laika was chosen as she was a street dog who’d survived harsh Russian winters, so scientists assumed she’d be a bit tougher than your average pampered pooch.

At the time, the world was stunned that the Soviets were launching a living being into space, just a month after launching the world’s first ever satellite. Practical considerations were though of and Laika wore a special suit that collected urine and faeces, and a fan was automatically activated to keep her cool when the capsule’s temperature exceeded 15 degrees Celsius. Immortalised as a Soviet hero, the public were told that Laika lived for 7 days in orbit and only died once her oxygen ran out.

However, information released in 2002 about the Sputnik 2 capsule showed that the temperature and humidity in the capsule increased dramatically after the start of the mission, and life signs from Laika stopped being received after 5–7 hours.

Medical sensors placed on Laika indicated that during launch her pulse rate went up by a factor of three above its resting level, decreased at the start of weightlessness, and took a good few hours to return to her pre-launch rate. Put simply, Laika died from overheating and stress.

The travels of Belka and Strelka in 1960 tell a slightly happier tale, as they were the first dogs to successfully return from orbit, and gave enough confidence to officials to send Yuri Gagarin, the first human into orbit just one year later. Here’s footage of them being prepared for their mission:

Strelka went on to have puppies and one of her offspring, named Pushinka, was presented to US President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline, as a gift from the Soviet Union.

Belka and Strelka have been stuffed, as is befitting a national hero, and they are now only display at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.

Fun fact

In 1963 a cat called Felicette was sent into space by the French for 15 minutes. She’s the first and only cat to have been sent into space. It’s a pity they didn’t send all of them.

Water bears

No, I’m not talking about the marmalade-sandwich-eating, pooping-in-the-woods type of bear. These tiny invertebrates are technically known as tardigrades, measure around half a millimetre, and are tough little critters.

A tardigrade

A mission by the European Space Agency in 2008 showed that they could also survive in the vacuum of space and withstand solar radiation, becoming the first animal to do so.

The tardigrades were dehydrated and exposed to the vacuum and radiation of outer space for 10 days, and rehydrated when they came back to Earth. Amazingly, 68% survived and a percentage of those that did were able to produce viable offspring.

This has led to them being the stars of the show in project BIOKIS, an initiative run by the Italian Space Agency to investigate the impact of short-duration spaceflight on water bears. Once again, tardigrades have been blasted off into space so that scientists can investigate how cells physically adapt to cope with extreme dehydration caused by the space vacuum, and what type of damage is caused by cosmic radiation. Now that they’ve shown they can survive, scientists want to know how.

One of these experiments, the Tardkiss experiment, has been exposing colonies of tardigrades to different levels of ionising radiation using an instrument called a dosimeter, at different points during the spaceflight mission. The results from Tardkiss will enable researchers to determine how radiation dosage effects the way cells work, informing future space missions.

But how do they survive dehydration in the first place? Until relatively recently, this was a bit of a mystery. However, recent research by Dr Thomas Boothby at the University of North Carolina has revealed that water bears have unique genes that create proteins that preserve cells during desiccation, and when a tardigrade starts to dry out it activates these cells.
The unstructured proteins encapsulate the water bear’s molecular components in a glasslike matrix within the body, slowing down the tardigrade’s metabolism and keeping it in a suspended state until it is rehydrated.

The team who discovered this hope that this will have practical applications for humans, such as storing vaccines and pharmaceuticals at room temperature in a dehydrated state, which would enable medicines to be safely transported and used in remote areas of the world.

Fun fact

There are 900 known species of tardigrades in the world and they live all over the places—from the top of the Himalayas and the bottom of the ocean, to Japanese hot springs and even in Antarctica.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *