One small paw for dog, one giant leap for canines.
Space is definitely the Final Frontier, and we’re gearing up for the next stage. SpaceX finally stuck a sea landing, the International Space Station is experimenting with room-sized inflatable cabins and NASA announced a three-step plan to colonize Mars by 2030.
However, we can’t go where no man has gone before without man’s best friend, right? So, there’s been a lot of talk about whether dogs could survive in space. In short, yes they can, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Most of the data we have on dogs in space comes from the Russian Space Program during the big Space Race of the mid-20th century. While the US used monkeys as test pilots for their space program, Russians used dogs. The former USSR had a long history of using dogs over other research animals, believing they were more docile subjects, so it was a natural fit for them to be used in the space program as well.
It’s a story without a terribly happy ending. Many of Russia’s dogs, including the famous Laika, died during their space missions. They were also subject to treatment that would be considered questionable by today’s standards, including putting the dogs in confined spaces and being forced to relieve themselves into suits. However, researcher Damon Murray told Collectors Weekly that the scientists were very devoted to the dogs, and the canines were even treated like celebrities after returning from successful space missions.
Several of the dogs were able to survive in weightlessness for 24 hours at a time, giving Russian scientists enough research to support sending the first human into space in 1961. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of research on how dogs could survive in space for longer than 24 hours, but there has been a lot of research into the effects of space residency on human bodies, which definitely tells us more. And it’s not pretty.
Basically, it’s hard to survive in space. Really, really hard. One of the reasons NASA is trying to colonize Mars within the next 15 years is because humans cannot survive for long in space, given the adverse effects on our physiology.
Some of the biggest concerns for human survival in space involve muscle and bone mass. According to NASA, humans lose between 1 and 2-percent of bone mass every month of weightlessness. Given that dogs have over 100 more bones than humans do, that could mean some serious bone loss, which could lead to dog osteoporosis, a very serious condition. In addition, hearts don’t beat as hard in space, leading to hearts changing their shape and losing muscle mass. Canine hearts beat up to twice as fast as a human’s, and a slowed heart rate can be deadly, causing seizures and loss of consciousness.
Another big problem is the sleep cycle. Dogs sleep about half of the day, and a lot of their activities are based on the natural ebb and flow of a 24-cycle. Unfortunately, in space no one can see a sunrise, and astronauts have reported sleep deprivation and the need for medication the longer they’re in space. Dogs can get canine poisoning from regular ingestion of sleeping pills, so they may end up suffering from not being on a rotating planet with days and nights.
Finally, there’s the very real risk of space radiation, which has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Luckily, there are other things that don’t appear to be as affected in space. Russia’s dog space program showed that they can eat gelatinous food just fine and digestion stays relatively constant, although research suggests that long space missions can increase secretions in the stomach and pancreas. And you can still sweat in space, which is a good sign for dogs, who’ve got to pant to cool off.
We still have a long way to go before dogs can put their first paw on the moon, but there are tons of space programs that are working hard to get us living in space in our lifetime. And you know that man’s best friend can’t be far behind. After all, no one wants to live on Mars without their dog.