ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. The world was transfixed last week by the story of a group of geckos lost in space. Well, some of us were transfixed by it. The geckos were research subject, and they were adrift for days after the Russian space agency lost contact with their capsule. Moscow, additionally, eventually re-established communication, so there was a happy ending. Long before there were space geckos, before any other creature has escaped Earth's atmosphere, there were some fruit flies. Here's Nate DiMeo, who tells stories from America's past on his podcast, The Memory Palace.
NATE DIMEO, BYLINE: There were once were some fruit flies. They were born. They mated. They ate some fruit. And they died about 30 days later, like fruit flies do. But these particular fruit flies spent one of those 30 days - a winter's day in 1947 - in space, as the first of Earth's creatures to leave its atmosphere.
There once was a monkey named Yorick, who went 236,000 feet up and 236,000 feet down, landing softly and safely with a parachute. But alas, poor Yorick didn't survive the wait for rescue. A metal capsule gets awfully hot in the desert sun.
There once were two monkeys, Mike and Patricia, who did everything together, we're told, including getting shot into space in May 1952, awake and weightless in the nose cone of a rocket. They made it back alive and retired to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where Patricia died just a couple of years later of natural, non-space-related causes. She was survived by her mate, Mike, who lived until 1967. Let's spare a thought for Mike in his dotage - a widower on display at the National Zoo, a government worker until the end, whose memory, primatologists tell us, may well have held thoughts of Patricia and that odd adventure they took one spring day long ago.
There once were many dogs - Soviet dogs - chosen for space because they could sit and stay on command, unlike some fool American monkey. There was Dezik, who went up with Gypsy in the summer, then again with Lisa in the fall, but then died in the fall back to Earth. One dog named Bobick broke out of her cage and ran away in the middle of the night, rather than fly into space the next morning. Good girl. And then there was Laika - poor, famous Laika, sent to orbit the Earth in a satellite they knew would burn up on re-entry. For a half-century, the Russians maintained that they had invented a special machine that euthanized her right before her oxygen was set to run out, but they hadn't. In truth, she died just hours after take-off - overheating, we think - a small favor, we fear.
They built a statue to Laika in Moscow and said, her death proved that humans could survive in space, though it did not. But the death of a monkey named Gordo - lost in the ocean, down there still - did. And the lives of other monkeys and mice and street dogs and guinea pigs - guinea pigs, all - proved that we could go to space. Some of them lived. Others traded their lives for our dreams, as is so often the bargain.
RATH: That was Nate DiMeo. You can hear more of his stories at TheMemoryPalace.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.