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67 Years Of Space Travel: Why Do We Still Send Animals To Space?

First Posted: Aug 31, 2016 06:14 AM EDT
Space Animals
A rabbit and Daring, one of the two dogs that completed a rocket flight as part of a Soviet experiment.
(Photo : Keystone / Stringer / Getty Images)

Since science has proved, time and again, that humans can survive the extra-terrestrial trip to space, a question arises: why countries still send monkeys and other living creatures up to space? The answer lies in a particular studies that help scientists prepare for the hazards that they may face if they ever stay in space for prolonged periods of time.

"People didn't know what would happen to humans in space, or what would happen to life in space," Brad Carpenter, chief scientist for NASA's Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division.

The Past

At the beginning of the space race, countries send chimpanzees, dogs and rabbits into space as testers. In 1957, a dog named Laika became the first Earthling to orbit her home planet, reports Space.com. Scientists believed that if the hapless animals could survive the weightlessness, the extreme speeds and the rapid acceleration, then humans had a fair shot as well.

But since then, more than 500 people have traveled to space, so testing the survivability of short-term space travel for humans is not a pressing scientific concern, Halberg said.

Growing Food in Space

When humans go to another planet, they would need to find a way to grow food and sending a space greenhouse full of fruits, vegetables and pollinating insects seems like a nice alternative, according to LiveScience.com.

"But pollinators, for instance, could be confused by the zero pressure or weightless environment of space. And fruits and vegetables may not have the same life cycle in space", Halberg said. "All organisms on Earth have adapted to a gravitational pull of one atmosphere, so if we change that, how do the organisms respond?"

Travelling to other Planets

Animal experiments in space can provide insights into the dangers of interplanetary or interstellar travel.  "Right now it's really science fiction, but we need to understand how organisms respond to these space conditions," Halberg told LiveScience.

Halberg studies how a water bug called a tardigrade can withstand spacelike conditions. The water bugs dehydrate and go into an extreme hibernation with zero metabolism, he said, thereby withstanding the punishing radiation, desiccation and frigid temperatures of space.

Studying Evolution

Nematodes and humans show similar changes in the expression of genes that regulate blood sugar but because they are more compact and reproduce quickly, scientists can study a lot of them across an entire life span, unlike humans. "Animal experiments can also reveal how changes across the life span may translate to other species, from earthworms all the way up to humans," Nathaniel Szewczyk, biologist at the University of Nottingham, ended.

Some people think it's cruel to send animals into space - especially if they don't make the journey back. But it's widely thought the knowledge gained has helped pave the way for human space travel.

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