In honor of the (now upcoming) SpaceX launch on Saturday, I figured we’d pay homage to some of the animals who helped pave the way for human space exploration!
It’s time to meet some…
You’ve probably heard of Laika the space dog, and half a century after his famous moonwalk, Neil Armstrong is still a household name. But before we were launching shuttles into orbit and beyond, scientists needed to understand the physiological effects of high-altitude radiation. So in 1947, they launched a V-2 rocket whose onboard passengers were the first animals in space – fruit flies! The rocket was able to reach just beyond the international boundary of space (100km) before the capsule containing the flies was ejected and parachuted back to Earth. The flies were unharmed, effectively launching the world into the space age.
Nadezhda the Cockroach
Nadezhda (meaning “Hope” in Russian) was a cockroach sent to space along with a colony of Russian cockroach compatriots. They were launched into orbit in 2007 aboard the Foton-M 3 bio-satellite flight. Upon her return, Nadezhda gave birth to 33 offspring, making her babies the “first earthlings known to be conceived in conditions of weightlessness.”
Ants are eusocial insects, thriving together as a colony and often coordinating search efforts in new and alien environments. Scientists wanted to know if they could do the same in microgravity. So in 2014 they sent 800 ants to the International Space Station, and they did… pretty okay. The scientists noted that the ants still attempted to search around, sometimes even grabbing onto other ants to help move around their container when they lost their footing, but were still nowhere near as effective as their gravity-bound counterparts. Researchers added a citizen science component to the experiment, asking elementary school students to conduct similar, easily replicated experiments with ants to see how different species explore new surroundings. (You can replicate the experiment, too!)
In another experiment in microgravity eusociality, scientists sent honeybees to space in 1989 to see how these flying, social pollinators would fare. At the start of the mission, the bees would collide with the walls of their Bee Enclosure Module (BEM). However, by the end of the mission, the bees were not only alive, but had learned to thrive in microgravity. They were able to fly short distances within the BEM and even resumed their normal bee-related activities like making honeycomb. All in 7 short days.
Evidence of the adaptability of these important pollinators is extremely promising, and not just because of the threats they face in the current day and age: researchers want to know if they can thrive in microgravity in order to pollinate off-world crops. Yeah, like Mars.
“Spidernauts” began their space careers back in 1973, when NASA sent two Golden Orb Weaver spiders up with Skylab 3 to see how their web construction varied under microgravity conditions. They successfully constructed the first functional webs in space. Since then, many other spider species have been sent, with the latest taking up residence on the ISS, and like many other arthropod astronauts (Arthronauts? Astropods?), they fare pretty well in space. But for Nefertiti the jumping spidernaut, acclimating to zero gravity aboard the ISS was no issue – it was reacclimating to gravity on Earth that really gave her problems.