*Disclaimer: gross amounts of anthropomorphizing ahead.*
So, being that I'm a huge nerd for space travel (seriously, there is a picture somewhere of me in the fifth grade dressed up like Yuri Gagarin) and being that I'm obsessed with all things 4-legged and cute, this was inevitable.
Many people are familiar with Laika, the ill-fated street dog of "muttnik" or Ham, the first mercury astronaut. (Although there were other primates that were part of the Mercury Program before Ham, they did not reach the requisite 62 miles into the atmosphere (AKA the Karman Line) to be in outer space.)
But the history of animals in space is much longer and much more involved than these two instances.
Side note--I feel for the members of the latter half of the mercury program--Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Deke Slayton & Gordon Cooper--all of whom were total badasses in their own rights. I doubt I'm alone in the fact that I could name John Glenn, Alan Shepard, "Gus" Grissom, and Ham a million times faster than the other mercury astronauts. Fame is weird.
Laika's life support gave out shortly after her mission began, and her ship burned up in the atmosphere. If you like monkeys and want to be depressed, read about the Alberts I-IV, rhesus monkeys who died during their missions, or any of the many canine cosmonauts that died during the space race.
But things got better for our mammalian space travelers. Take Yorick, (which some sources identified as an Albert?) The first monkey to survive a space flight. He had mice co-pilots (who, if they had names, were not preserved for history). So much for being a rodent.
Many people are familiar with the aforementioned Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, but did you know about Enos, the first chimp to orbit the earth? Pretty neat. Able and Baker hold the claim of being among the first monkeys to survive space flight, start to finish. (There was a squirrel monkey named Gordo who survived flight before them, but died upon impact after re-entry.) Also, being who I am, I feel compelled to tell the masses about Felicette, a French cat who was the first feline in space.
I can't possibly recreate the cuteness here in paint form, so you're just getting a real photo. Also, if I believed in former lives (which I don't) I'm pretty sure I would be the scientist in this photo.
Really, it's a long, interesting, and all-in-all, very cool history. I really recommend giving this article a read. These animals really paved the way for space exploration and are a really neat (and key) part of the history of space travel.
Also, as a bonus: if you're like me, the thought of monkeys in space suits makes you squeal with glee.
*gross amounts of anthropomorphizing complete*