Zond 5: Tortoises at the Moon
Zond 5 postage stamp. Credit: Public domain

Zond 5: Tortoises at the Moon

12/09/2018Written by Elliott Langley

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Zond 5 mission, here is a look at its unlikely heroes.

Book online now and upgrade to a free annual pass

mascot Telescope Right
Zond 8 earthset. Credit: MIIGAiK.
Zond 5. Credit: spacerockethistory.com

Imagine the first astronauts to visit the Moon and you may picture Neil Armstrong taking long, uncertain strides across a barren lunar landscape, or the crew of Apollo 8  flying in orbit around the Moon.

And yet, as unlikely as it sounds, the Apollo crews were actually not the first ones to fly to the Moon.

That honour belongs to an unremarkable pair of tortoises, who became the first living creatures to voyage to our Moon.

This September 2018 we mark the 50th anniversary of the Zond 5 mission which carried two Russian tortoises to the Moon and back again.

Animals in Space

Animals in Space
The Zond 5 tortoises. Credit: energia.ru
Animals in Space
Proton "Zond" Launch Vehicle. Credit: spacelaunchreport.com

By the 1960s, sending animals into space was an established way of finding out how our human bodies, organs, and brains would function in weightlessness. Scientists in both Russia and the United States carefully studied their animal astronauts as they returned from micro-gravity conditions as a way to ensure human astronauts would also survive the extremes of space flight.

Beginning in 1947, America became the first country to send living creatures into space when they launched a V-2 rocket containing fruit flies. The experiments focused on how the flies reacted to being in cramped conditions, both physically and psychologically.

Over the next twenty years, animals ranging from mice, monkeys, dogs, rabbits and even a pair of frogs were placed into rockets and sent into Earth orbit, and some even beyond it. Whilst not all of them were fortunate enough to return alive, many of these animal astronauts have become immortalised by the scientific community and popular culture, with Laika the dog the most famous.

It is perhaps less well known that the first animal to reach the Moon was a bit more obscure than the more famous dogs, mice, and monkeys.

Zond 5

Zond 5
Zond spacecraft. Credit: Ebs08 via Wikimedia Commons
Zond 5
Steppe tortoise. Credit: Yuriy75
Zond 5
Zond 5 recovery. Credit: energia.ru

On 14 September 1968, a modified Soyuz capsule was launched from the Soviet Union. Its mission: to fly beyond the orbit of the Earth and to perform a lunar fly-bys. The mission would last for nearly a week, and would become only the second time that a spacecraft launched from the Earth would reach the Moon.

But what really sets the Zond 5 apart from any other mission is its occupants: two unnamed Russian tortoises, or “steppe” tortoises as they are sometimes known. Along with samples of soil, seeds, and even some worms, the two reptiles were in space for a total of six and a half days as the capsule completed its circle of the Moon.

Try to imagine what the two tortoises felt during their flight. They were probably very confused by the intense vibrations and extreme conditions of blastoff. Once in the weightless environment of space, they may have also felt disorientated and were probably wondering what on earth was happening to them!

Thankfully, the tortoises not only survived the journey, but returned to the Earth in good health.

On 21 September 1968, six days after the launch, Zond 5 was retrieved from the Indian Ocean after its steep parachute landing. The original plan was for the Zond 5 to land in Kazakhstan, but the capsule veered off course during its return flight. Rescue vehicles from the Soviet Union raced to where the capsule was floating, and the samples (including the tortoises!) were successfully retrieved from the capsule.

It was later found that while the tortoises were alive and well, they had lost some weight (about 10%) during their time in space. This continues to be a common occurrence in the bodies of astronauts due to the loss of bone and muscle mass in a weightless environment. But otherwise, both tortoises were in good condition, and scientists confirmed that the reptiles had healthy appetites and were being given nutritional meals to help them recover from their flight.

Zond 5 postage stamp. Credit: Public domain

Although the Zond 5 tortoises remain unnamed to this day, they have become a significant and vital part of the story of the Space Race.

Their journey into space was one of the key events that led up to the launch of the first manned flight to the Moon – Apollo 8 in 1968.

So the next time you find yourself gazing at the Moon, try to imagine the two tortoises that once flew around it. They were some of the first – and strangest – astronauts to ever venture there.

The story of the Space Race, including the role of animals in space, is told throughout the Rocket Tower at the National Space Centre.

About the author: Elliott Langley is a member of the Space Crew team at the National Space Centre.