Animal Astronauts Have About a 66 Percent Chance of Survival
According to our unscientific survey.
Baker prepares for space. Image: NASA.
Last week, the entire world united in concern for the five, horny geckos that had been lost in space on the Russian Foton-M4 satellite. Even John Oliver appealed to his audience by starting the #GoGetThoseGeckos hashtag. "Don't you dare laugh at the fact that Russia has lost a satellite full of sexually active space geckos," he said, bemoaning the uncertain fates of the geckos. "This is like Apollo 13 all over again."
Well, our collective prayers have been answered, because Roscosmos re-established contact with the satellite over the weekend. But does this really ensure the successful return of the amorous lizards?
Hardly. Since humans first starting blasting animal astronauts into space in the 1950s, they have frequently died on the job. In fact, according to my haphazard calculations, spacefaring animals have about a 66 percent chance of survival of a safe return to Earth.
I came to that percentage by scouring the history books (i.e. the internet) for every animal launch I could find, and tallying up whether the non-human crew survived or perished on their missions.
A quick caveat: The list only covers missions in which the survival or demise of the animals is clear-cut. I came across plenty of biological payload missions where the ultimate fate of the animal crew was never disclosed. So take the percentage with a grain of salt, as you peruse this list of animal astronaut deaths and successes.
February 20, 1947: Fruit flies became the first animals to be launched into space. They survived.
June 11, 1948: Albert I, a rhesus monkey, died of suffocation during the mission.
June 14, 1949: Albert II, a rhesus monkey, died on impact after parachute failure.
August 31, 1950: An unnamed drugged mouse died on impact after parachute failure.
September 16, 1949: Albert III, a macaque, died in an explosion.
December 8, 1949: Albert IV, a rhesus monkey, died on impact after parachute failure.
August 31, 1950: Another unnamed mouse died.
April 18, 1951: Albert V died on impact after parachute failure. (Jesus Christ, fix the damn parachutes already. We're losing too many good monkeys!)
July 22, 1951: The Soviet dogs Tsygan and Dezik survive their suborbital spaceflight.
September 1951: The Soviet dogs Dezik and Lisa died after parachute failure.
September 20, 1951: Yorick, a monkey, survived his spaceflight along with 11 mice. But he died two hours after returning home, along with two of the mice.
August 19, 1951: Russian space dogs Smelaya and Malyshka survived their spaceflight.
August 1951 to September 1960: 27 more Russian two-dog flights launched. 24 were successful, three resulted in the death of the dogs.
May 21, 1952: Patricia and Mike, two cynomolgus monkeys, survived but did not reach space.
November 3, 1957: The space dog Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth, died during the mission of heart failure.
December 13, 1958: Gordo, a squirrel monkey, died in his capsule at splashdown.
May 28, 1959: Monkeys Able and Baker survived their mission, though Able died days later.
June 3, 1959: Four black mice survived their launch, but then overdosed on the krylon on their cage bars.
July 2, 1959: Marfusa, the first rabbit to go into space, survived.
September 19, 1959: Two frogs, and 12 mice died when their rocket was destroyed at launch.
December 4, 1959: Sam the rhesus monkey survived.
July 28, 1960: Space dogs Bars and Lisichka exploded on launch.
August 19, 1960: Space dogs Belka and Strelka survived, along with a gray rabbit, 40 mice, two rats, and a fruit fly colony.
December 1, 1960: Space dogs Pchelka and Muska died in re-entry along with mice, and insects.
January 31, 1961: Ham the chimp survived, but was super-thirsty.
February 22, 1961: Hector the rat was launched by the French space program, and survived.
March 9, 1961: Space dog Chernushka survived, along with mice and a guinea pig.
March 22, 1961: Space dog Zvezdochka survived.
November 10, 1961. Goliath, a squirrel monkey, died when his rocket was destroyed at launch.
November 29, 1961: Enos the chimp survived.
October 18, 1963: The French launch a cat named Félicette into space, and she survived.
October 24, 1963: The next cat the French launched into space died, though.
February 22,1966: Space dogs Veterok and Ugolyok survived, and broke the record for the longest time in orbit: 22 days.
December 1966: On NASA's Biosatellite 1, adult parasitic wasps, flour beetles, and fruit flies died.
April 11, 1967: Argentina launched a rat named Belisario into space, and he survived.
September 15, 1968: The Soviets flew two turtles flew around the moon on Zond 5, making them the first animals to traverse deep space. They both survived.
November 14, 1968: Zond 6 lost its biological payload, whatever it was.
June 28, 1969: Bonnie, a macaque, survived her flight, but died of hypothermia upon her return.
December 23, 1969: Juan, a capuchin monkey, survived his Argentine space mission.
February 1, 1970: The follow-up mission with a female capuchin monkey didn't go so well. The female died on impact after parachute failure.
November 9, 1970: The two bullfrogs on the Orbiting Frog Otolith were not planned to be recovered, so...totally dead.
April 16, 1972: Nematodes on Apollo 16 survived.
December 7, 1972: Four out of five mice on Apollo 17 survived.
July 28, 1973: The spiders Arabella and Anita on Skylab 3 died during the mission.
1983-1996: During the international Bion Program (led by Russia), eight monkeys were launched, all of which survived but Multik, who died when he inhaled vomit under anaesthetic. His death shut down the program.
September 14, 2007: ESA'S FOTON-M3 mission returned tardigrades to Earth after being exposed to the vacuum of space. A cockroach named Nadezhda, the first animal to give birth in space, also survived.
February 3, 2010: Iran launched a mouse, two turtles, and some worms into space and returned them successfully.
November 9, 2011: The Fobos-Grunt mission burned up in the atmosphere, presumably killing the tardigrades inside. Those microbes are tough, but not that tough.
April 19, 2013: On the Bion-M satellite, the casualties included 39 mice died and eight gerbils, but the geckos survived touchdown.
And finally, as of July 28, some sexy space geckos have beaten the odds and survived their first mission malfunction. But the ride is not over yet, so keep your fingers crossed that the geckos remain solidly in that lucky two-thirds of animal astronauts that live to walk the Earth once more.