The world was caught off guard when the Iranians announced that they had successfully shot a monkey 72 miles into space. With justification, some analysts claimed this was likely a thinly disguised effort to cover up their ambitious military plans to fire long-range missiles across the Middle East and beyond.
However, this supposed feat calls attention to the role animals have played in blazing the trail for space exploration. We owe a tremendous debt to the animal kingdom, whose assistance is vital to every aspect of science. Back in 1948, the U.S. placed a rhesus monkey called Albert I aboard a modified German V-2 rocket. The following year, Albert II was sent 83 miles into space. In 1951 the U.S. sent a monkey named Yorick into the heavens; he was the first one to actually survive the descent back to Earth. Many of the animals in the early days of space exploration died in these experiments. Albert I suffocated during his mission. Albert II died on impact when his parachute failed to work properly as his capsule returned to Earth. And poor Yorick perished soon after landing. This underscores the potential dangers of space travel and also the role that animals have played in reducing human casualties and opening up space travel to humanity.
The Soviets were way ahead of us. In 1957 the world was stunned when the U.S.S.R. sent Sputnik into orbit completely around the Earth. But this feat was overshadowed when the Soviets sent Laika the dog into space, the first animal to orbit Earth. It was originally reported that Laika died on the sixth day of the mission due to lack of oxygen, but information released in 2002 indicates that Laika may have died after just a few hours due to overheating in the capsule. In 1966 the Soviets sent two dogs into space for 22 days, a record that would not be surpassed by humans until the 1970s. Since then, a virtual zoo of animals—including rabbits, frogs, snails, jellyfish, bees, and spiders—have explored the final frontier as denizens of space shuttles and the International Space Station.
Animals have not only paved the way for exploration of space, they have also pioneered the exploration of the mysteries of our bodies and our genetics. For example, the Human Genome Project unlocked the secrets of the more than 20,000 genes that contain a blueprint for the human body. But we don’t know what all these genes do and how they interact. It’s like having a dictionary with 20,000 perfectly spelled words, with almost no definitions. This is where experimentation on mice comes in, filling the blank pages of the Human Genome Project. This, in turn, could revolutionize all of medicine, giving us an “owner’s manual” for the human body.
Some people, however, point to the past abuses of animals in the name of science. Indeed, such abuses have taken place, but today there are stringent requirements that every scientist must follow when applying for federal grants to use animals for experiments. Also, critics point out that computer simulations are sophisticated enough so that animal experimentation can be eliminated entirely. One wishes it were so. But the biochemistry of our body is so complex, involving so many interactions, that computers are at a loss to predict the interactions and side effects of certain therapies. So animals will continue to blaze the path for science many decades into the future, saving lives, reducing suffering, and opening up entirely new vistas.