From the moment humans started to reach for the skies, we have used other species from Earth to test what’s safe and what happens to life away from its natural habitat on the planet’s surface.
On September 19 1783, Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier carried out a hot air balloon demonstration in front of French king Louis XVI and the royal family at the Court of Versailles. The basket below the balloon held a sheep, duck and a cockerel, making it the first passenger flight in history as well as the first aeronautical scientific experiment with animal subjects. After ascending to 600 metres, the fabric of the balloon ripped. It descended slowly, landing 3.5 km away. When it transpired that the cockerel had a damaged wing, the first air accident investigation began. It concluded that the cockerel had not suffered due to the flight, but had been kicked by the sheep.
We have to wait more than 150 years for the first recorded experiments sending seeds aloft.
During the Second World War, Wernher von Braun developed rocket technology for the Nazis. His work culminated in the V-2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. From September 1944, German forces launched 3,000 V-2s against London, Antwerp and Liège.
As the war drew to a close, the Allies rushed to capture German technology and manufacturing sites. Wernher von Braun surrendered to the Americans with more than 100 key V-2 personnel. The US also collected enough hardware to build around 80 V-2 missiles. The Soviets took over the V-2 manufacturing facilities and moved production to the Soviet Union.
In 1946, the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was collaborating with scientists from Harvard University to send biological specimens into the upper atmosphere, launched on V-2 rockets from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The biologists wanted to study the effects of of the radiation at high altitudes, using various organisms. They were particularly interested in the possibility of genetic mutations. They supplied the NRL with some “specially developed strains of seeds”, which became the first seeds in space on July 9 1946. The rocket reached an altitude of 134 km, but its payload was not recovered.
A second flight, launched on July 19 contained a second batch of the seeds, but only reached 6 km in altitude. Again, the sample seeds were not recovered.
As the NRL prepared for the next missile launch, the engineers realised they had run out of the special seeds from Harvard. As they were not anticipating being able to recover the seeds, they just nipped out to a hardware store in Las Cruces and bought a regular packet of maize seeds. In fact, the flight (on July 30) exceeded all expectations, and those seeds became the first to be travel into space and be recovered. The well-travelled seeds were sent to Harvard, along with the rest of the packet, which served as the experiment control.
What does “in space” mean? It means above the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Theodore von Kármán was the first person to calculate the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes too thin for routine flight (his answer was 83.6 km (51.9 miles)). There’s no single definition of the Kármán line. NASA and the US Air Force use 50 miles (80 km) above sea level.
Eventually, the NRL ran out of V-2 rockets and didn’t build any more. Investigations into the effects of cosmic radiation on plant seeds (and other organisms) using balloons. Balloon experiments (which continue to this day) don’t take payloads into space, but they do offer longer exposure times at high altitude than a rocket.
Beischer, Dietrich E., and Alfred R. Fregly. Animals and Man in Space: A Chronology and Annotated Bibliography, Through the Year 1960. US Naval School of Aviation Medicine, US Naval Aviation Medical Center, 1962.
Bledsoe, Gregory H., Michael J. Manyak, and David A. Townes. Expedition and wilderness medicine. Cambridge University Press, 2008.