Long before human beings ever ventured into space, animals were being sent into space to test the survivability of spaceflight. Humans worried that their bodies would not be able to survive space travel, so they sent animals to test things out first. NASA has a very comprehensive history of all the animals that were sent into space. Things started out small, with countries sending frogs or tortoises and even rats, but it wasn’t until they started sending dogs and monkeys that real missions started to take place.
Laika, a husky-mix stray dog, was the very first named animal that was launched into space. She was launched into space aboard Sputnik II on November 3, 1957, by the Soviet Union. Her mission was to determine if anyone could survive living aboard a spaceship for an extended period of time. Monitors attached to her body sent information back to earth and provided scientists with proof that living things could survive in space. She died within a week of launch. Originally, it was thought that her life support batteries ran out, but it was later determined that she probably died of overheating and stress.
On December 13, 1958, the United States sent a spider monkey named Gordo on a suborbital flight aboard the Jupiter AM-13 rocket. Gordo's mission was to determine the effects of a rocket launch on a living body, and he wore a customized space suit that was fitted with instruments to send information back. The flight lasted 15 minutes, but Gordo died when the rocket landed in the South Atlantic and the capsule's flotation device failed to open.
Able and Baker were two monkeys launched by the United States in the nose cone of Jupiter Missile AM-18 on May 28, 1959. Able, a female rhesus monkey, and Baker, a female squirrel monkey, were on a mission to test if they could withstand the greater gravity force exerted during a launch, and then come back to earth alive. The monkeys managed to withstand forces 38 times the normal pull of gravity and were weightless for 9 minutes.
Belka and Strelka were two dogs who were sent into space on August 19, 1960, aboard the Soviet's Sputnik 5. This mission was the Soviet’s attempt at launching dogs into space and recovering them alive. The two dogs stayed in orbit, circling the earth 18 times before their ship returned safely to earth a day after its launch. Both dogs were recovered alive, and Strelka even went on to give birth to six healthy puppies months later, one of which went to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, as a gift.
The United States launched Ham the Chimpanzee into space inside Mercury-Redstone 2 on January 31, 1961. Ham's mission was proving that living animals aboard a spacecraft could still perform tasks during launch, when they were weightless, and during re-entry. He was also used to test the capabilities of the Mercury capsule's systems in the environment of space. Ham was able to perform his tasks. He was successfully recovered and received a congratulatory handshake from the commander of the recovery ship. His flight lasted 16 minutes and 39 seconds.
If not for these pioneer animals, we might never have reached space for fear of not making it back alive. These animals took that risk and paved the way for humans to start conquering space themselves.