The internet loves animals, and loves animals in surprising places even more. So, when a photo emerged showing a frog flying alongside Nasa's Minotaur V rocket as it lifted off from its launchpad in Virginia earlier this month carrying the LADEE spacecraft towards the moon, it was an immediate hit. It has since gone viral.
It may have been, as Megan Garber put it at The Atlantic, "one small step for a frog" and "one giant leap for frogkind", but this acrobatic amphibian was actually not the first to cross paths with space-faring institutions such as Nasa. There is a long history of high-flying frogs.
The first attempt to send a frog into space was on 19 September 1959. Two frogs and a dozen mice were meant to travel towards the stars on a Jupiter AM-23 rocket, but the rocket was destroyed during launch, meaning that the animal astronauts would not go to space that day (or indeed any other day).
Less than two years later, the first frog to actually wind up in space was aboard the USSR's Vostok 3A rocket in March 1961, along with mice, guinea pigs, and cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev. The frogs were witness to history when Nikolayev communicated over radio with cosmonaut Pavel Popovich in the Vostok 4 rocket, which launched just a day after Nikolayev. It was the first radio communication between two spacecraft.
Froggy spaceflight really came into its own almost a decade later when, in 1970, Nasa launched the Orbiting Frog Otolith spacecraft. "Otolith" refers to the frog's inner-ear balance mechanism, which was appropriate because the mission was designed to investigate the effects of spaceflight and weightlessness on motion sickness. The otolith is a critical part of the vestibular system – the part of our nervous systems that help us maintain balance – and it works mainly by detecting acceleration due to gravity.
Frogs were used because their inner ears turn out to be quite a useful model for the human inner ear, and the factors that induce motion...