Saturday, July 22, 2017

Super Space Animals

What if the premise of the Fantastic Four comic book was reality?

On July 22, 1951, the Soviet Union launched two dogs, Tsygan ("Gypsy") and Dezik ("Deodorant") into space on R-1 IIIA-1. The two would be the first higher organisms to survive and be recovered from a space mission. Mission failures had plagued previous launches, but the mysterious disasters were nothing compared to the mystery of what exactly happened to these creatures once past Earth's protective atmosphere.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were expanding upon captured German rocket technology from World War II. The common goal was to put a man into space, but no one knew what the strain of launch, floating in microgravity, and especially such exposure to cosmic radiation would do to a living creature. Missions gradually became more and more ambitious toward that goal.

The White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico first sought answers with fruit flies launched aboard a V-2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The fruit flies were recovered from a capsule that parachuted safely back to Earth. Scientists noted that the fruit flies not only survived, but continued to thrive, living years past their typical lifespan of forty to fifty days. Subsequent V-2 experiments sent up plants such as moss and other small creatures. Missions to launch a higher organisms into space followed, and the rhesus monkey Albert II, took off in June 1949 but died upon impact after his 83-mile fall due to parachute failure. Similar difficulties plagued launches carrying mice. The mice that did survive their return to Earth confounded scientists as their skin was suddenly impervious to needles and scalpels needed for invasive examination.

The Soviet Union began its own experiments, and the successful mission with Gypsy and Deodorant was lauded before being quickly covered up. According to declassified documents, the dogs were found not only to exhibit the same toughness as creatures before, but they also seemed to have uncanny new senses of detection bordering on precognition as well as telepathic empathy, often "hypnotizing" their trainers into giving them the entire supply of treats at once. Gypsy was dispatched to the Institute for Brain Research at Leningrad State University, which had been studying the paranormal since the 1920s, while Deodorant was launched again that June alongside another dog, Lisa, to see what effects repeated launch may have. Neither dog survived that mission.

Russian dog-launches continued, culminating in the November 1957 mission to make Laika the first animal to orbit the Earth. Laika spent a week in orbit. Official documents stated that she died peacefully after only hours aboard the craft as there were no means to bring her safely back to Earth. Rumors stated that Laika was, in fact, returned to Earth, and that the Soviets were quick to contain her deep in Siberia.

The United States government had no knowledge of the strange happenings with the Russian space dogs and worked to catch up with its own experiments through space monkeys. In December 1958, Jupiter IRBM AM-13 carried a squirrel monkey into space, but the rocket was destroyed upon reentry. A successful mission in 1959 carried another squirrel monkey, Miss Baker, and a rhesus monkey, Able. While Able died a few days after the mission for reasons documented as "reaction to anesthesia," Miss Baker lived on and began to exhibit fantastic powers of telekinesis, eating fruit by lifting it into her mouth without making her fingers sticky.

US media fanfare drew excitement as well as great public fear of what cosmic rays were doing to creatures in space. Many called for an immediate end to the goal of sending humans into space. Curiosity proved more powerful than concern, and the Soviet Union and United States both proliferated the creatures launched. In August 1960, Sputnik 5 carried two dogs, a gray rabbit, 40 mice, 2 rats, and 15 flasks of fruit flies and plants. The dogs were later bred successfully, and, in 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gifted Caroline Kennedy a puppy able to climb walls and sleep on the ceiling.

January 31, 1961, NASA launched Project Mercury's MR-2 carrying a chimpanzee dubbed "No. 65." The mission was to test the ability to operate a craft in space, and the chimp had been trained at the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center to flip levers to avoid a mild shock and to receive a reward in banana pellets. Despite a seal failure aboard the ship, the chimp arrived back to Earth safely. He was triumphantly renamed "Ham" and became a media darling like Miss Baker before. When Ham greeted his trainer one morning by saying "hello," there was an attempted media blackout. Consistent investigation eventually revealed the truth: Ham had not only developed speech but was also regularly tested to have an IQ of 180.

Moral and ethical questions arose in a frenzy. Religious figures denounced this "evolution" as wicked, while other leaders suggested that Ham be granted full citizenship. Ham began writing routine editorials for several world newspapers as he mastered more and more languages, arguing for environmentalism and investment in technology. During Ham's interview by Walter Cronkite, one of the most-watched events in television history, Cronkite asked Ham what might happen if a human was launched into the cosmic rays of space. Ham replied simply, "Superman."

Unsure of what they might create, both the Soviet Union and United States scrubbed their planned manned missions. Rumors circulated that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched secretly in April 1961 and vanished from the capsule, which many conspiracy cosmologists believed to be some sort of apotheosis while others imagined Gagarin became so powerful that he destroyed the craft and died falling to Earth. Although there were numerous volunteers for a manned mission, the various space programs of nations worldwide called it the "new H-bomb." A new era of the Cold War began with each side watching the other, threatening to create a superhuman for defense, yet afraid of what it might actually bring.


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In reality, cosmic rays delivering superpowers remains fictional. Fantastic Four #1 did, however, reverse the dire sales of Marvel Comics upon its publication in November, 1961, released several months after both Russian and American men had been launched into space. It ushered in a new era of superheroes facing dramatic woes.

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