An occasional series exploring science and space, for parents and kids to enjoy together.
Who was the first to orbit the Moon? If you said “Neil Armstrong”, you’re wrong. If you’re a smarty pants and said “the crew of Apollo 8 a few months before Neil Armstrong,” then you’re still wrong. The answer, in fact, is a couple of Russian tortoises.
Believe it or not, the creature most famous for its slow, deliberate pace was the first living being to hurtle past another world. The feat happened in September 1968. That’s three-quarters of a year before Neil and Buzz set foot on the Moon, and three months before the astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to fly around the satellite.
The half-shelled reptiles flew on a mission called Zond 5, part of the Soviet Union’s (unsuccessful) programme to develop a spaceship capable of flying humans to the Moon. History does not record their names -- all we know is that they were designated as test tortoises number 22 and 37. The tortonauts shared their capsule with several other species, including wine flies and mealworms. This was a ragtag, motley crew for such an historic mission -- the first time in the known universe that creatures from one world had voyaged to another.
Why were they flying? Scientists needed data about the harsh radiation fields beyond low-Earth orbit. Sending a variety of animals out into the cosmos before risking human life was the inevitable solution. Tortoises were chosen because they are easy to strap down, small and light.
The poor reptiles can’t have had a pleasant trip. They were starved for several days before the flight and not fed at all during their week-long voyage. Once they got back, they were put through a barrage of tests, and later dissected. An ignoble end for the fastest and most-travelled tortoises in history.
Scientists found little difference between the spacefaring tortoises and control animals kept on the ground. A few small biochemical oddities were put down to the lack of food, and not space radiation. In short, no show-stoppers were discovered that would prevent humans returning healthy from the Moon. As it happened, the Soviets never did launch a crewed lunar mission. Their achievement of sending the first living animals around the Moon is all but forgotten.
In the ultimate face-off between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise won the race… but it would be the American hare who would go on to win the bigger prize.
At Kidadl we pride ourselves on offering families original ideas to make the most of time spent together at home or out and about, wherever you are in the world. We strive to recommend the very best things, that are suggested by our community and are things we would do ourselves - our aim is to be the trusted friend to parents.
We try our very best, but cannot guarantee perfection. We will always aim to give you accurate information at the date of publication - however, information does change, so it's important you do your own research, double-check and make the decision that is right for your family.
Kidadl provides inspiration for everything from family days out to online classes, arts, crafts and science experiments. We recognise that not all activities and ideas are appropriate and suitable for all children and families or in all circumstances. Our recommended activities are based on age but these are a guide. We recommend that these ideas are used as inspiration, that ideas are undertaken with appropriate adult supervision, and that each adult uses their own discretion and knowledge of their children to consider the safety and suitability.
Kidadl cannot accept liability for the execution of these ideas, and parental supervision is advised at all times, as safety is paramount. Anyone using the information provided by Kidadl does so at their own risk and we can not accept liability if things go wrong.
Kidadl is supported by you, the users. When you buy through the links on our site we may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
All prices and product availability were correct at the time of publication.
We also link to other websites, but are not responsible for their content.