Spidernauts and space dogs: What happens to the creatures of spaceflight

Animals and insects outnumber humans who have been to space

Pushinka, a gift to President John F. Kennedy from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, stands her ground on the White House lawn, Aug. 14, 1963, while the rest of the family's dogs vacation with the first family at Cape Cod. Pushinka was the offspring of Soviet space dog Strelka. (AP Photo/William J. Smith) (William J. Smith, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Animal spaceflights paved the way for the first human astronauts, and today, creatures big and small continue to space travel, advancing our knowledge of how the zero-gravity environment impacts all beings and aiding research down on Earth.

Supercluster.com’s Astronaut Database is a compilation of every human and creature with a spaceflight experience. Chief creative officer Jamie Carreiro worked to compile all the non-human space travelers, which includes hundreds of fruit flies, 40 dogs, 30 primates, seven bats and one cat.

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“We’re the ESPN for space,” Carreiro said of Supercluster.com. “Let’s say you’re a baseball fan -- you want to look at the stats of that pitcher, or you want to see how many three-pointers your favorite NBA star got to provide context for a story, we want to create that same kind of presence for space travelers, for astronauts (and) for researchers in the long term.”

Recent entrants to the database include NASA Astronaut Victor Glover following his first spaceflight in the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft; also Glover’s crew mates, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguichi -- and a Baby Yoda doll that the SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts brought along with them.

By popular demand, the site now also tracks the plush toys used as zero-gravity indicators by astronauts.

[This “Space Curious” episode’s question was submitted by Maureen Coral, of Titusville, who wanted to know know what happens to the creatures sent to space for science. Check SpaceCurious.show to vote on the next episode or to submit more ideas for future episodes.]

Carreiro said the Supercluster database team quickly realized it couldn’t tell the story of human spaceflight without including the first living beings to go to space.

When spaceflight was still a concept, NASA and the then-Soviet Union first sent up primates and dogs. These animals were subjected to vigorous testing and often cruel treatment as humans attempted to learn what they could from them in order to leave Earth.

“Even if they couldn’t choose to make the sacrifice, they are akin to those explorers who may have tried to cross the Arctic, and that made it, and you know, we can honor them, similarly, even if they didn’t make the choice,” Carreiro said.

Only one cat named Félicette, of France, ever achieved spaceflight. Carreiro said people can draw their on conclusions as to why felines weren’t used again.

“We jumped immediately to dogs and primates because we wanted to get close to higher-order mammals to try and figure out like, ‘OK, can we send a person up there?’” Carreiro said.

Without the monkeys, apes and dogs, Carreiro said there would be no first human spaceflight by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin or first American spaceflight by Alan Shepard.

“Those stories are such a mix of optimistic and happy, and also a little bit tragic, frequently, because the animals can’t give their consent, and because they don’t always come back,” Carreiro said.

In the Soviet Union, the dogs sent to orbit in the 1950s and 60s weren’t well-known breeds. Instead, the Russians used strays.

“Most of them were just street dogs because the logic being that if we pick up a mutt on the street, it’ll probably be hardier both genetically and in its attitude. It’ll be more able to deal with different stimuli and unusual situations,” Carreiro said of the first space dogs.

The dogs often became the pets of the scientists who trained them, spending time at their homes and playing with their children, which presented a problem when they didn’t return.

The first dog launched by the Soviets, Laika, actually did not return alive.

“At first, the Soviet Union covered it up and they said, ‘This dog is alive and well,’ for days, but it likely had died within two hours of the launch,” Carreiro said, adding that was especially hard on the scientists who had developed a connection to Laika. “One of the scientists kissed it on its nose just as they were closing the capsule, and that dog didn’t return.”

After, the Russians improved life-support systems and many other dogs repeatedly went to space, returning home.

During one Soviet mission, a spacecraft with two dogs inside was meant to acquire a signal from another spacecraft flying by, but before that could happen, the space dogs alerted engineers to the approach.

“The dogs in the capsule were barking because they had seen the capsule outside the window. And they were like, ‘Oh my god, there it is.’ So (it was) like a dog with a mailman, or the delivery truck or whatever,” Carreiro said. “There was just this truth to that of like, ‘Oh, yeah, we sent dogs to space, and they’re still dogs. They’re still doing dog stuff ... there’s someone at the window, who is that?’ and they are protecting their spaceship.”

The record for most spaceflights by a living thing is actually shared by two humans and a dog, because a dog flew seven times during the Soviet era, and no human has beat that record yet, Carreiro said.

Fast forward about 50 years past the first achievements in human spaceflights: Animals that now go to space stay on the International Space Station as part of ongoing research happening inside the orbiting laboratory. This category includes mice, rats, ants, fruit flies and spiders. These creature stories are sometimes harder to track down, Carreiro explained.

“Many of the entries we’re seeing in here are drawn from research papers, where we know that an experiment was done in space. And then we go to the research paper to find out the population of insects that that experiment was run on,” Carreiro said. “So, some of these entries, you’ll see like, 15 harvester ants that most likely was recorded as part of an experiment, and then we go in and find that that’s what had to be there.”

The spiders who have lived on the ISS were a little easier to learn about, including a red-back jumping spider called “Nefertiti the Spidernaut.”

In 2012, an 18-year-old student from Egypt wanted to know if a jumping spider would be able to catch its prey in zero-gravity. His experiment was selected as part of an international competition. It turned out Nefertiti could hunt in space, no problem.

After launching from Japan on a cargo supply mission to the ISS, NASA astronaut Suni Williams oversaw Nefertiti’s experiment.

“I think she’s been eating well,” Williams told the students and celebrity scientist Bill Nye in a 2012 video.

“I saw her stalking a fruit fly, unbeknownst to that poor little fruit fly, and she was looking at it and she was going real close, and all of the sudden, *Chook* she jumped right on her, and it was amazing!” Williams said. “I think the spiders absolutely adapted in space. It was incredible to watch.”

Charlie, Caroline Kennedy's terrier, left, poses with a newcomer to the White House, Pushinka, displayed at a news briefing on June 20, 1961. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent Pushinka, offspring of the Russian space dog Strelka, to Washington for President John Kennedy and his family. Hassel Adams, left, holds Charlie and Robert Richmond holds Pushinka. The men are White House gardeners. (AP Photo/John Rous) (AP1961)

Many of the insects launched to the ISS live out their short lives there, but Nefertiti came back to Earth and lived out her days at the Smithsonian.

Nefertiti was only expected to have a lifespan of about a year. When she died in December 2012, NASA wrote a moving obituary for the jumping spider that included references to “Charlotte’s Web” and key moments in her short life.

“Nefertiti didn’t spin a web like Charlotte; her kind never could. But the red-back jumping spider earned a classy nickname, Spidernaut, as well as a bunk at the popular Insect Zoo of the National Museum of History of Washington for her out-of-this-world exploits,” the post read.

But Nefertiti is far from the only arachnid to visit the space station, and definitely not the last insect or mammal to achieve spaceflight.

The first space dogs live on through their descendants today. The strays who survived were tremendously famous, and their puppies were highly sought-after. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted President John F. Kennedy a dog named Pushinka, whose mother, Strelka, was one of the first dogs to fly into space.

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