There is hardly a more bizarre footnote in the early years of space exploration than the need to put animals on top of chemical-fueled rockets and send them into earth orbit. It’s a fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union dared not risk sending a human being to test the still-unknown effect of space flight. So, while engineers considered a variety of creatures, great and small, to become man’s trailblazer to the stars, they settled mostly on monkeys, and dogs.
Belka and Strelka emerged as the most celebrated canines to ride into outer space. They flew aboard the USSR’s Sputnik 5 on August 19,1960. Although the craft also carried 42 mice and a grey rabbit among other animals and plants, Belka’s and Strelka’s story was the only one to fire the imagination of the earth-bound public. They were hailed as the first creatures to come back from earth orbit alive, several months before a man would manage the feat.
Russian filmmakers dramatized the pair’s tale with a popular animated feature in 2010. The real Strelka is immortalized in a completely different fashion, appearing in an exhibit of early orbital feats.
Soviet space scientists said they chose dogs as test animals because canines could stay in an enclosed space for a longer time. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, were too restless. French engineers took a different, smaller-scale approach. Rats were their orbital creatures of choice. It must gall guinea pigs that they were entirely overlooked in the annals of animal space pioneers.