Animals in space

Once upon a time, people sent monkeys and dogs into the stratosphere as test subjects aboard rockets we weren't yet willing to put a human being on top of. We also used mice to gauge how microgravity was likely to affect humans, as seen in the old video clip above.

Today, animals still go into space, but for very different reasons. And NASA's top veterinarians have developed far more stringent guidelines governing how research animals in space can be treated. The rules are aimed at finding a good balance between the desire to be humane, the need to dissect most of the creatures that do go into space, and the constraints of working in a cramped environment.

NASA's use of animal astronauts has changed along with the culture, according to Dunlap. "We've become more compassionate with time, more aware of seeing and making sure that animals get humanely treated." The agency is unlikely ever to return to the days of flying monkeys and chimpanzees. Other than humans, mice are the highest-order animal currently being sent into space. They provide the best balance of sample size (more tissue and bone structure to study) and cage logistics: their small cages are easier to store in a cramped cabin and to provide with ample air circulation.

The mice brought back this summer on Atlantis were part of a medical study by pharmaceutical company Amgen that uses weightlessness to look at bone loss, which is worsened by the absence of gravitational stress on the skeleton. Most animal research in space is geared toward using analogous animal physiology to extrapolate the effects of microgravity on astronaut health. Amgen also hopes to use the mouse study to improve its osteoporosis drugs used on Earth.

Animals can spend months living in space before returning to Earth for analysis. Most are tucked away in experiment racks that are stowed like drawers. The crew only has to check on the animals once a day to make sure they're healthy. But if the animals become sick in orbit, there's little the crew members can do. "We have looked into trying to fly veterinary kits to treat animals," says Dunlap. "But it just becomes problematic, because if you have syringes and needles that you would use to treat an animal, then the safety folks get concerned. They don't want a crew member getting stuck or bitten."

(Via Heather Gross)

Video Link


  1. Even though they underwent drastic changes in weight due to the gravity fluctuations, the mice never lost sight of the most important aspect of their mission: pushing that tiny ball around with their noses.

  2. Now does someone have a video of what a mouse/animal does when it’s container is about 10x that size?  One where it isn’t practically touching some part of it at all times.  I’m curious if the mouse would just freak out floating in air, or would it be become so terrified it just froze?  Obviously people are different and realize their environment has changed, and these studies were more for physiological not psychological reasons.

    1. While weight’s not too much of an issue (A. dux max out at under 300 kg), their sheer size might make launching them tricky, to say nothing of a tank big enough for them to do cool stuff in (and the water, oh God, the mass of water!)

      The biggest problem, though, is that we have not yet managed to capture one alive.

      Also, gravity is hardly an issue for neutrally-buoyant sea creatures, so it wouldn’t be much more interesting than watching one in an aquarium.

      Birds would be cool, though, if we could give them space to fly somehow.  Flying insects too, but less so as they fall slower on Earth.

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