In August 1960, two dogs named Belka and Strelka completed went to space aboard a Soviet spacecraft, stayed for a full day orbiting, and returned to Earth alive and well. They were the first living creatures to survive in outer space. Upon their return, the two dogs became an instant sensation around the world. It also gave the Soviets confidence to send a human into space less than a year later.
Animals have been used in flight long before humans left the planet. In the early years of space flight, all kinds of living beings from rodents to apes were strapped onto rockets and blasted out into space. Once they came back, their psychological effects were observed and physiological changes studied to understand the impact of exposure to space on living tissues. While the Americans experimented with monkeys and chimps, the Soviets preferred to use dogs, because they were easy to train, easily tolerated confined spaces, and formed emotional bonds with humans. Most importantly, they were easy to procure. Most dogs that went to space were strays picked up from the street.
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Belka and Strelka after their historic flight.