Recently, NASA released colorful, dreamy illustrations depicting an imagined future in which human beings have made it to other worlds. A curly-haired astronaut floats inside a lunar space station, with the crater-pocked moon behind her. A lunar explorer steadies a camera on a tripod to photograph Earth in the distance. And an astronaut stands on the dunes of Mars with her hands in the pockets of her spacesuit, a dog at her side.
Wait, a dog?
To be clear, NASA’s ambitious plans for missions to the moon and Mars do not include dogs. (At least, none that the public knows about. If you’re a member of a top-secret program to groom doggonauts, please contact me.) The agency does want to send humans there, sometime in the 2030s.
But dogs have been to space. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union strapped dogs into capsules and launched them into the sky. The canines were not trusty space sidekicks, but research subjects, strays collected from city streets to test launch systems before humans themselves did. (The United States conducted similar tests, with several species of monkeys.)
Engineers “trained” the dogs; they dressed them in spacesuits, kept them in small boxes for days, and put them through rocket-launch simulators. But any pup would do, really. In the fall of 1951, days before his scheduled flight, Bolik the dog somehow managed to run away. Russian engineers, facing a strict deadline, went outside, found a stray, and strapped him in. They named him ZIB, a Russian acronym that stood for “substitute for the vanished Bolik.” He completed the mission and returned to Earth safely.