Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched the Korabl-Sputnik 2 spacecraft - known as Sputnik 5 in the west - carrying two dogs named Belka and Strelka, along with mice, rats and flies into space. More surprising? Everyone came back alive.
The success of Sputnik 5 came at a time when space didn't seem particularly welcoming to anything with a heartbeat. Three years earlier, Sputnik 2 had sent Laika, a not so fortunate canine passenger, to an orbital death within mere hours. Not exactly confidence-inspiring. But Sputnik 5 defied doubts over putting living organisms into space - which were significant enough that the exact circumstances of Laika's demise were concealed from the world until 2002 - making 17 full trips around the earth within 25 hours. Suddenly, space wasn't deadly. Video monitors and electrodes hooked up to the dogs had monitored their in-flight condition, providing reassuring proof that space could be survived. And survive they did - even the 40 mice. Belka and Strelka became national heroes. The mice probably all died alone, drunk in a gutter somewhere, and the flies were last seen driving towards a cliff in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird.
A tag attached to the capsule, intended for anyone who might have accidentally stumbled upon the vessel after it landed, warned passersby not to open the craft (we can only imagine what it would have been like to let loose what must have been two very, very freaked out dogs).
After her traumatic voyage, Strelka went on to have a healthy litter of puppies, one of which was delivered to President Kennedy as a gesture of Cold War diplomacy and what must have been a gratifying little in your face moment for space-faring Russia.
So on behalf of all the furry and not-so-furry astronauts that safely followed, happy 50th birthday to Sputnik 5. Who would have ever guessed that decades later, astronauts would not only not be dogs, but would be kidnapping each others' girlfriends? Progress!