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Fun Facts - SPACE EXPLORATION



Animal Space Poineers

Before humans went into space animals were used to test equipment. The first animal to be sent up in a rocket - but not into space - was Albert 1, a male rhesus monkey, in 1948. He and his successor Albert 2, died during the tests.

However, on 20 September 1951, a monkey and 11 mice were recovered after a launch in a US Aerobee rocket. Many further animal experiments were carried out before the first manned space flight.


  • Space Dog
  • Laika (1954 – November 3, 1957) was a Soviet space dog that became the first animal to orbit the Earth – as well as the first animal to die in orbit.

    As little was known about the impact of spaceflight on living creatures at the time of Laika's mission, and the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed, there was no expectation of Laika's survival. Some scientists believed humans would be unable to survive the launch or the conditions of outer space, so engineers viewed flights by non-human animals as a necessary precursor to human missions. Laika, a stray dog, originally named Kudryavka (Russian: Кудрявка Little Curly), underwent training with two other dogs, and was eventually chosen as the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3, 1957.

    Laika likely died within hours after launch from overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death was not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six,or as the Soviet government initially claimed, she was euthanised prior to oxygen depletion. The experiment aimed to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness, paving the way for human spaceflight and providing scientists with some of the first data on how living organisms react to spaceflight environments.


    On April 11, 2008, Russian officials unveiled a monument to Laika. A small monument in her honour was built near the military research facility in Moscow which prepared Laika's flight to space. It features a dog standing on top of a rocket.


  • Cat
  • Felix and Félicette were apparently two street cats in the program (10 were de-commissioned for eating too much!), with Felix being the feline chosen to undertake the first mission. According to one report, Felix escaped the flight - whether by literally escaping or being decommissioned is not known - and was replaced by the female cat Félicette. On October 18, 1963, the cat blasted off in a special capsule on top of French Véronique AGI sounding rocket No. 47, from the Colomb Bacar rocket base at the Hammaguir test range in the Algerian Sahara desert.

    The cat did not actually go into orbit, but traveled 100-130 miles into space. Throughout the flight electrodes transmitted neurological impulses back to Earth. After approximately 15 minutes, the capsule separated and the pod, with cat inside, descended by parachute and was rescued. Pod and cat were safely recovered, and the French Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Medecine Aeronautique (CERMA) affirmed afterwards that the cat had made a valuable contribution to research.

    A second flight occurred on October 24, but whether the same cat was the 'astrocat' is unknown. There were problems with the recovery, and the unfortunate traveler died.


  • Monkey Business
  • Before humans went into space, several animals were launched into space, including numerous monkeys, so that scientists could investigate the biological effects of space travel.

    The United States launched flights containing primate cargo primarily between 1948-1961 with one flight in 1969 and one in 1985. France launched two monkey-carrying flights in 1967. The Soviet Union and Russia launched monkeys between 1983 and 1996. Most monkeys were anesthetized before lift-off. Overall thirty-two monkeys flew in the space program; none flew more than once.

    Numerous back-up monkeys also went through the programs but never flew. Monkeys from several species were used, including rhesus monkeys, cynomolgus monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and pig-tailed macaques. Some chimpanzees were also used.


  • Flying Frog
  • Two bullfrogs were launched on a one-way mission on the Orbiting Frog Otolith satellite on November 9, 1970, to better understand space motion sickness.


    Apollo 16 on April 16, 1972 carried nematodes, and Apollo 17, launched on December 7, 1972 carried five pocket mice, although one died on the circumlunar trip. Skylab 3 carried pocket mice and the first fish in space (a mummichog), and the first spiders in space (Garden Spiders named Arabella and Anita). Mummichog were also flown by the U.S. on the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, launched July 15, 1975.

    The Soviets flew several Bion program missions which consisted of satellites with biological cargoes. On these launches they flew tortoises, rats, and mummichog. On Soyuz 20, launched November 17, 1975, tortoises set the duration record for an animal in space when they spent 90.5 days in space. Salyut 5 on June 22, 1976, carried tortoises and a fish (a zebra danio).


  • Worldwide Web
  • Spider webs were spun in low earth orbit in 1973 aboard Skylab, involving two female European garden spiders (cross spiders) called Arabella and Anita, as part of an experiment on the Skylab 3 mission. The aim of the experiment was to test whether the two spiders would spin webs in space, and, if so, whether these webs would be the same as those that spiders produced on Earth. The experiment was a student project of Judy Miles of Lexington, Massachusetts.

    After the launch on July 28, 1973, and entering Skylab, the spiders were released by astronaut Owen Garriott into a box that resembled a window frame. The spiders proceeded to construct their web while a camera took photographs and examined the spiders' behavior in a zero-gravity environment. Both spiders took a long time to adapt to their weightless existence. However, after a day, Arabella spun the first web in the experimental cage, although it was initially incomplete.

    The first web spun by the spider Arabella in orbit. The web was completed the following day. The crew members were prompted to expand the initial protocol. They fed and watered the spiders, giving them a house fly. The first web was removed on August 13 to allow the spider to construct a second web. At first, the spider failed to construct a new web. When given more water, it built a second web. This time, it was more elaborate than the first. Both spiders died during the mission, possibly from dehydration.

    When scientists were given the opportunity to study the webs, they discovered that the space webs were finer than normal Earth webs, and although the patterns of the web were not totally dissimilar, variations were spotted, and there was a definite difference in the characteristics of the web. Additionally, while the webs were finer overall, the space web had variations in thickness in places: some places were slightly thinner, and others slightly thicker. This was unusual, because Earth webs have been observed to have uniform thickness.


  • A Space Menagerie
  • The STS - 90 mission of space shuttle Columbia (April/May 1998) contained the Neurolab - a space menagerie with 170 baby rats, 18 mice, 229 swordtail fish, 135 snails, 4 oyster toad fish and 1,514 cricket eggs and larvae.





Space Junk

When satellites reach the end of their useful life, they may be deliberately directed back in such a way thet they burn up as they re-enter the Earth's atmosphere or come down in the oceans or away from places where they could cause damage. So far, no one has been killed or seriously injured by space debris.



  • Returned To Earth
  • The 69 - tonne Skylab re-entered in 1979, scattering large chunks in the Australian desert, and Russia's Mir space station, which weighed 120 tonnes, came down in the Pacific


  • Orbiting Junk
  • About 100-200 objects, each larger than a football, re-enter every year, but there are still many pieces of space junk in orbit. A survey carried out in June 2000 calculated that there are 90 space probes and 2,671 satellites still in space. There are as many as 100,000 objects between 1 and 10 cm in diameter and about 11,000 objects larger than 10 cm including parts of rockets: an Ariane rocket booster exploded in 1986, scattering 400 fragments large enough to be tracked. In 1991 space shuttle Discovery STS-48 narrowly avoided a discarded Soviet rocket.





Artificial Satellites

The USSR's Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite to enter Earth's Orbit. This 83.6 kg (184 lb) metal sphere transmitted signals back to Earth for three weeks before its batteries failed.

In 1958 the USA began to launch its own satellites. Five went into orbit. All of the earliest satellites have since crashed back to Earth, except Vanguard 1 (USA, 1958) which is still in space - and likely to remain so for another 200 years.

Over the past 50 years, many more artificial satellites have been launched, with a greater range of uses.




  • Astronomy
  • The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking photographs of distant galaxies since 1990. In 2008 the Herschel Space Observatory is scheduled for launch. This new telescope will have biggest mirror ever in space (3.5 m across).


  • Communications
  • Over 5,000 satellites have been launched to transmit telephone, radio and television signals around the world. Fewer than half are still orbiting, and many have stopped working.


  • Earth Observation Satellites
  • These transmit images of the weather and the Earth's environment. They helped to show the depletion of the ozone layer.


  • Military Satellites
  • Governments use these "spies in the sky" for surveillance but their precise functions are secret.


  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • This is a system of 24 linked satellites that allows people to pinpoint their exact position anywhere on Earth. The system is operated by the US Department of Defense and used by aircraft and ships. GPS systems are now common in cars and phone too.




    Planets Visited By Spacecraft




    No human has yet set foot on any space body other than Earth and the Moon. But unmanned spacecraft have taken photographs, made scientific readings and gathered data from all the planets in the Solar System, either by flying past or landing.



  • Venus

  • Mariner 2 (USA) flyby 1962;

    Venera 4 (USSR) landed 1967;

    MESSENGER (USA) flybys 2006,2007;


  • Mars

  • Mariner 4 (USA) flyby 1965;

    Mars Pathfinder (USA) landed 1997;

    MER-A and MER-B landed 2004;

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (USA) in orbit 2006-;

    Phoenix Mars (USA) landed in 2008;

    Dawn (USA) flyby 2009


  • Jupiter

  • Pioneer 10 (USA) flyby 1973;

    Galileo (USA) landed* 2003;

    New Horizons (USA) flyby 2007


  • Mercury

  • Mariner 10 (USA) flyby 1974;

    MESSENGER (USA) flybys 2008 2009 and scheduled to orbit 2011


  • Saturn

  • Pioneer 11 (USA) flyby 1979;

    Cassini/ Huygens (USA/ESA) orbiter/lander 2004/2005.


  • Uranus

  • Voyager 2 (USA) flyby 1986


  • Neptune

  • Voyager 2 (USA) flyby 1989


    *Deliberately destroyed entering jupiter's atmosphere, rather than risk contaminating moon Europa with bacteria from Earth.