Animal companions have been a part of our lives since the birth of human civilization. As we extend outwards into the Solar System and beyond, it is nearly certain that people will want to bring their furry, feathered, and fishy friends with them to new homes away from Earth. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not it is moral, and just, to bring animals with us, involuntarily, as we populate outer space.
Pets will have no choice in deciding whether or not to move off-Earth, as we cannot ask a cat or dog if they want to move to the Moon with us. While these creatures may be intelligent, feeling animals, they cannot grant consent to move across the street, much less to Mars. The idea of moving pets from Earth into space, therefore, is abhorrent to some animal rights activists.
However, many animal behaviorists hold the opinion that, while moving from one home to another on Earth may be stressful on animals, they can quickly adapt to a changing environment. This is particularly true if their daily routine remains as constant as possible, especially for our feline and canine companions. The same is likely to be true for travel beyond our home world.
“Most dogs seem to take moving in stride, but for some the loss of their familiar home and routine can be upsetting, and settling in to a new home can pose problems, for people and dogs alike… Dogs are generally quite content as long as their social group (people and pets) remains much the same and the daily routine remains fairly constant,” VCA Hospitals states in a report detailing challenges of moving here on Earth.
Moving to space would pose little-seen challenges for animals, including the stresses of launch and adapting to weightlessness. So far, knowledge of how animals react to conditions away from Earth remains sparse.
Data from missions detailing the behavior of animals in space, together with knowledge of how animals react to travel and changing homes here on Earth, may provide a glimpse into what space colonization could hold for our animal companions.
Sad Tails of Space Travel
The history of animals in space began on a sad note, with a series of V-2 flights conducted between 1948 and 1949. These flights, with mice and monkeys aboard, all ended in tragedy, one way or another, for the furry occupants. It was not until two years after the final V-2 flight that animals launched aboard a rocket returned safely to the ground.
“On September 20, 1951, a monkey named Yorick and 11 mice were recovered after an Aerobee missile flight of 236,000 feet at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Yorick got a fair amount of press as the first monkey to live through a space flight,” NASA officials recall.
Laika, the first dog in space, is the best-known animal to yet visit the final frontier. On November 3, 1957, the USSR launched this three-year-old husky-spitz mix into orbit aboard Sputnik 2. Unfortunately for her, engineers never intended for the animal to return safely to the Earth. With only a week worth of oxygen and a tiny amount of food aboard the vehicle, Laika was doomed from launch. Although she reached orbit safely, the spacecraft lost its heat shield during the flight, and the canine died of heat exhaustion.
Another sad story tells of Félicette, the only cat to have, so far, traveled beyond the Earth. On October 18, 1963, after having electrodes plugged into her head, this tuxedo cat was launched 157 kilometers (97 miles) above the Earth, aboard a French sounding rocket. While at the peak of her flight, Félicette experienced five minutes of weightlessness. Unlike Laike, Félicette returned safely to the ground. However, within three months, researchers euthanized the space-faring feline to her to study the effects of space on her physiology.
“Her participation in the space race was certainly not voluntary, but it was a huge milestone for France, which had just established the world’s third civilian space agency (after the U.S. and the Soviet Union). Félicette’s mission helped bring France into the space race,” Hanneke Weitering wrote in an article for Space.com.
I’ll Admit, It Takes Some Getting Used to…
Animals have no way of knowing about space, much less that they will be safe with us on a journey to a space station or colony. It is natural animals may be scared or confused by launch and weightlessness, but this distress on their part may be short-term.
Mice brought aboard the International Space Station (ISS) seemed confused for the first day or two following their arrival on the orbiting outpost. In less than a week, however, these space-borne mice invented a new game, racing each other around the walls of their enclosure. Such behavior might, occasionally, be associated with a stress reaction. However, the animals maintained a healthy weight and their coats remained clean, suggesting the rodents were just having fun in the microgravity environment.
One of the greatest reasons for humans to populate other worlds is so that we might become a multi-planet species. By doing so, we can save our species if a extinction-level event were to take place on Earth. By bringing our pets with us, we would also assure the survival of their species in the case of a planet-wide catastrophe here at home.
Cats on a Plane. It’s Like Snakes on a Plane, Without Samuel L. Jackson
It would be ideal if we could, somehow, ask our pet companions if they wished to take the journey with us as we venture into space. However, as human companions to animals, we regularly move from one house to another, even cross-country or around the world, bringing our pets with us. Although some animals travel better than others, even a move of thousands of miles can often be accomplished with little stress for animals.
It was not long ago that traveling with pets aboard aircraft was challenging for human travelers, as well as stressful and dangerous for the animal. It was once common for pets to travel in the cargo compartment of aircraft, a practice which occasionally resulted in the death of animals from cold or asphyxiation.
Today, animals ride safely in the cabin, at the feet of their human family members. The gentle hum of an aircraft in flight is said by some experts to calm the animal, allowing them to sleep more easily. As we travel to space with our animal sidekicks, organizations managing flights will need to make sure non-human space travelers are provided with similar levels of safety and comfort.
Leaving animals behind when a family moves can be devastating to animals, as they won’t ever know what happened to their human family. Although travel may be stressful for our non-human companions in the short-term, staying with their human compatriots keeps them together with a loving family.
I wish outer space guys would conquer the Earth and make people their pets, because I’d like to have one of those little beds with my name on it.
— Jack Handey
The use of animals in the early space programs of the United States and Soviet Union (as well as France) were tragic for the creatures forced to take part in the missions. Today, many people recognize the data collected from these experiments was not worth the sacrifice of these innocent beings.
However, as our species colonizes space, people are certain to bring animal companions with us. As their guardians, we need to make sure our pets are safe, healthy, and happy on the space stations, and in the planetary colonies, of the future. Having animals in our lives is part of what makes us human — and that is better for everyone involved.