Who Was First in the Race to the Moon? The Tortoise

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In the race to the moon, who came in first? 


You might say the answer is Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and that other guy Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11. Or you could represent for the crew of Apollo 10, which reached the moon in May 1969 and then headed back to Earth without landing. 

But there is a much stranger answer to this question, depending on how much you care about humans and what your definition of reaching the moon might be. Before any people arrived at the moon, other animals got there first. And unlike the dogs and monkeys that were made famous in early space shots and Earth orbits, the first vertebrates to reach the moon were a pair of steppe tortoises, Discovery's Amy Shira Teitel reminds us

tortoisesaroundthemoon.jpg

The tortoises in question (Energia.ru).

The Soviet Zond 5 sent the animals around the moon -- although not into lunar orbit -- during a mission in the middle of September, 1968. The unmanned craft then returned to Earth and splashed down in the Indian Ocean, after which the Russians recovered the craft. 

A month later, Soviet scentists revealed that the Zond had been a tiny ark, carrying the tortoises, "wine flies, meal worms, plants, seeds, bacteria, and other living matter." A small dummy packed with radiation sensors flew, too. 

The tortoises, as history (i.e. the AP) records, lost about 10 percent of their body weight, but had a healthy appetite when they returned to Earth. In checkups afterwards comparing the animals to "stay-at-home turtles used as a test control," most things seemed normal, aside from some hazily explained problems with the liver and spleen. 

What this all means is that, as Teitel tweeted, "The first living beings to see an Earthrise from the Moon were communist turtles." As far as I can tell, the animals were not named. 


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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