2.2) First spaceflight

V0.2 - 17-04-2020

First spaceflight

Using previous experience to launch missions into space

After several countries had developed or acquired rocket technology and started working on supersonic and hypersonic research, it was only a matter of time for them to reach space and orbit. The next major challenge was brining objects back from orbit to space. 

Coming back from space

The first object to survive coming back from orbit was the Discoverer 13 capsule on the 11th of august 1960. Discoverer, later called Corona, was a spy satellite program that send its film roles back to space by parachute. The goal was to deploy a single large parachute and capture these capsules mid-air. Unfortunately, the camera onboard Discoverer 13 did not work. The first "useful" recovery from space was done eight days later with Discoverer 14. 

The Russian counterpart of Discoverer was called Zenit, a capsule that looked a lot like the later Vostok capsules. The general principle was the same, a satellite is launched to orbit, it takes pictures and the film has to be returned. However, where Discoverer only returned the film roll, Zenith returned the entire capsule. 

Animals in space

On the 3rd of November 1957, Laika became the first living being to reach orbit. Laika flew on board Sputnik 2, the second satellite to be shot into a stable orbit. After about four orbits, Laika died due to overheating.  One should note that there was no recovery or retrieval planned for her capsule. The first dogs that were launched and recovered safely were the Russian dogs Belka and Strelka. They flew into orbit together with a Gray rabbit, 40 mice, 2 rats and 15 fruit flies and plats into orbit onboard Sputnik 5 in 1961. After about a day the mission de-orbited and returned to earth.

These three dogs were the first to fly into orbit and the first to be recovered but were not the first animals in space. This happened on the 20th of February 1947 from White Sands where a US-launched A4/V2 rocket carried several fruit flies to 109 km. The animals had launched onboard a Blossom capsule. These capsules were ejected and safely recovered. On the 14th of June 1949, the same type of platform launched the rhesus monkey Albert II. He reached an altitude of 134 km but died on impact after a parachute failure. During the Blossom project about two-thirds of the monkeys died during or shortly after their flight. The animals preceding Laika from the soviet side were the dogs Tsygan and Dezik. Their launch occurred in august of 1951 and they reached an altitude of about 110 km. Dezkin went on for a second launch in 1951, this time with dog Lisa. Unfortunately this time their parachute did not work and both dogs died on impact. They used a R-2 rocket which is an upgraded version of the Soviet R-1 which is essentially a Soviet A4/V2 rocket. 

Up to this point, animals were recovered after about 1 day. The first long-duration flight was launched on the 22th of February 1966 with the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok. They flew onboard Cosmos 110 and landed after 22 days. Animals went even further in 1968 when the Zond 5 mission carried tortoises on a cislunar flight.

European work

It was during the 1960s that the French jumped into the living payload space flights. On the 18th of October 1963, a 2.5 kg cat named Felicette was launched onboard a Veronique sounding rocket. The Veronique was the first European liquid sounding rocket and was strongly based upon the German V2 rocket. Felicette’s flight lasted for about 13 minutes, during which he experienced 9.5 g’s on liftoff, 5 minutes of weightlessness and a violent 9g parachute recovery. The second living payload flight of the French occurred in 1967 when two rockets carrying monkies were launched and recovered. These were the last French animals in space.

Felicette the cat
A French Veronique sounding rocket

Felicette (left) and the Veronique rocket (right)


Several other nations have successfully launched animals into space. These include China and Argentina. China launched mice and rats into space in 1964 and 1965 and a dog in 1966. Later in 1990 they launched and recovered the first animals from orbit.

Argentina has launched animals twice on top of a Canopus II rocket. The first time in 1967 all went well and the animals passed the 100 km mark. However, in a later flight in 1970 the parachute system failed. 

Iran joined the club in 2013 when they launched a rhesus monkey on a suborbital flight.