On August 20, 1960, the first animals and plants returned alive from space. Launched on August 19, Soviet Union’s Korabl-Sputnik 2 (also known as the Sputnik 5) was the first spaceflight to send animals and plants into orbit and return them safely back to Earth. it paved the way for the first human orbital flight, Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1, which was launched on April 12, 1961.

Today’s (August 20) story of what happened this day in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history.

The first animals and plants that returned alive from space

Two dogs, Belka and Strelka, were launched into space on August 19, 1960, aboard the Soviet’s Korabl-Sputnik 2 (Sputnik 5) spacecraft. They returned to Earth one day later, becoming the first living creatures to be launched into space and returned safely to the ground. Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”) were actually accompanied on their historic flight by 40 mice, 2 rats, and a number of plants.

The objectives of the spaceflight were

  • Putting a spacecraft that could potentially carry a cosmonaut into a circular Earth orbit
  • Testing the life-support functions of the biological cabin
  • Studying the effects of orbit and space environment on biological and botanical specimens (animals and plants)
  • and to re-enter from orbit and retrieve the cabin and specimens.
Soviet space dogs Belka and Strelka
Belka and Strelka, the first dogs returned from an orbital spaceflight, after returning back to Earth.

The Korabl-Sputnik 2 spacecraft had a mass of 4600 kg (10,141 lbs) and contained a hermetically sealed pressurized cabin. The cabin held biological specimens (dogs, mice, rats, flies, plants, fungus, etc.). There was a temperature and pressure monitoring system for the biological subjects and cosmic ray, X-ray, and ultraviolet radiation detectors. Power was provided by solar cells and chemical batteries.

The objectives of the program were to: put a spacecraft that could potentially carry a cosmonaut into a circular Earth orbit, test the life-support functions of the biological cabin; study the effects of orbit and space environment on biological and botanical specimens, and re-enter from orbit and retrieve the cabin and specimens.

The animals’ successful return from space gave confidence that a human being can also endure such an orbital spaceflight.

A few months after that flight, Strelka gave birth to six healthy puppies. One of the pups, named Pushinka, was given to Caroline Kennedy, daughter of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, as a present from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Strelka, the Soviet space dog, and her puppies
Strelka, the Soviet space dog, and her puppies. Source

After their orbital spaceflight, both Belka and Strelka lived their lives in peace and comfort at the State Research and Testing Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine. Both dogs died at a very old age.

Today, a preserved Belka can be seen in the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow. Strelka was also preserved and is often sent “on travel” by the museum.

The first animals and plants returned alive from space on August 20, 1960
The first animals and plants returned alive from space on August 20, 1960: The Sunday Times August 21, 1960 cover: “Space dogs back alive – Russia Blazes Trail for Manned Flights”
Belka and Strelka: the Soviet space dogs

Belka and Strelka became the first dogs that returned alive from an orbital spaceflight. But, actually, they were not the first dogs returned from space alive.

Before them, the Soviets sent a few dogs into space (the Soviets were using dogs for the spaceflight tests while the United States was using monkeys).

For example, The first dogs launched to space were Tsygan and Dezik, who were aboard the R-1 IIIA-1. The two dogs reached space on July 22, 1951, but did not orbit, they performed a suborbital spaceflight.

A sub-orbital spaceflight is a spaceflight in which a spacecraft reaches outer space, but does not complete one orbital revolution.

Tsygan and Dezik were the first mammals successfully recovered from spaceflight.

The first animal to orbit Earth was the famous Soviet space dog Laika (c. 1954 – 3 November 1957), who launched into space aboard Sputnik 2. Unfortunately, Laika died horribly from overheating. At the time, Soviet authorities lied about her death: they claimed that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six and passed away peacefully. The true cause and time of her death were not made public until 2002.

There was also another tragedy just a month before the orbital spaceflight of Belka and Strelka: two other dogs, Bars (“snow leopard”) and Lisichka (“little fox”) were also on a mission to orbit as a part of the Soviet Union’s Vostok programme, but died after their rocket exploded 28.5 seconds into the launch on July 28, 1960. Bars was also known as Chayka (“seagull”).

Korabl-Sputnik 2 (Sputnik 5)
Korabl-Sputnik 2 (Sputnik 5) with Strelka and Belka, the first two dogs which returned alive from space at Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics Photo by Pretenderrs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

August 20 in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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