Humans have made so many strides in space, it’s hard to remember a time when we weren’t even sure a living creature could survive in zero gravity. Amid ethical controversy, many animals big and small were sent to test the waters of weightlessness — some with more luck than others.
In tribute, here are some of the animal kingdom’s most notable space pioneers:
Laika, the dog that didn’t make it.
Most famous is Laika, the unfortunate stray whose journey was ill-fated from the start. The pooch was launched aboard Sputnik 2 in 1960 and was the first creature to orbit the planet, but the technology to bring her back didn’t exist yet. Despite reports that said she died painlessly, Laika was hooked up to monitoring instruments that showed that she was incredibly anxious and ended up dying of overheating and stress. She orbited the Earth about 2,500 more times and burned up in the atmosphere the following year.
Belka, Strelka, Veterok, and Ugoljok: Some of the dogs that did make it.
The same year, puppy duo Belka and Strelka went to space and were lucky enough to return, solidifying them as folk heroes. When Strelka gave birth to puppies, they were given to John F. Kennedy to give to his kids.
In 1966, Veterok and Ugolyok were launched on board Cosmos 110. The dogs spent 22 days in orbit–a record that has yet to be broken by any dogs since.
Ham the Chimponaut.
Ham was the first ever chimpanzee to travel to the cosmos — the same year that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. His entire flight was a little over 15 minutes, and he even had his own cheeky sign-off as a chimponaut.
Félicette the cat.
The black-and-white French feline was lucky and got scooped up after parachuting back to Earth in 1963. Félicette was in space for about 10 minutes, half of which were in zero gravity, and remains the only cat to have ever made a cosmic voyage.
Able and Baker, the monkeys.
The first creatures to come back to Earth safely were a couple of primates: Able was an American-born rhesus, and Miss Baker a South American squirrel monkey. They were launched in the nose cone of a Jupiter ballistic missile along with fruit flies and sea urchin. Both space monkeys made it home safely. Though Able died soon after during a procedure to remove her electrode, Baker lived for another 25 years and got hundreds of letters. To this day, people still leave bananas on her grave in Alabama.
Gladys and Esmerelda, the spiders.
A few years ago NASA sent two golden orb spiders into space as part of a massive classroom experiment. Without gravity to guide their work, the spidernauts spun circular webs. But despite the challenges of weightlessness, Esmerelda still successfully nabbed fruit flies in her web and had a hearty snack.
For even more animals sent to space, you can visit NASA’s brief history.