Science Fiction Space

Pets in spaaaaace

Animals in space don’t have a happy history, but more than half of humans share their lives with an animal companion. Space pets will be a thing, even if they’re rarely found in science fiction.

Laika and her doomed Soviet space dog chums, the NASA chimps, and the countless small animals sent to experience things that were likely to kill humans. Rodents, reptiles, fish and bugs still regularly go into space but it’s not usually a happy ending, even if they make it back.

There’s a simple reason that most of us feel bad about these stories: we like animals. People live with spiders, snakes, dogs and cats. Some idiots even make pets out of primates, but they deserve a quick trip out of the nearest airlock.

It’s hard to imagine that humans living in space will so readily abandon animal friendship, but it’s equally hard to imagine sharing the cramped, sterile environments of spaceships and habitats with creatures that have very different hygiene requirements. It’s telling that science fiction — particularly hard SF — rarely addresses such basic questions of our human lifestyles.

I’d never thought about it much either until I became a pawrent at the ripe age of 50. Layla’s an ebullient borador who would mainly miss her doggy chums and splashing in ponds if she was in space. But she’s made me realise how much joy pets bring to everyday life.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data (Brent Spiner) with his cat, Spot
Data’s cat Spot promises death to all who oppose him in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Image: Paramount.

Space pets: the feline frontier

Tribbles aside, Star Trek was pet free universe until Spot, Data’s cat, arrived in The Next Generation. Jones the cat almost gets Ridley killed in Alien, but he’s also the only Nostromo crew member to face the monster and survive.

Cats are a good start for space companion animals: they’re independent, easy to housetrain and don’t mind living their entire lives indoors. On a spaceship, you don’t have to worry about their need to eat everything smaller than themselves, although crawling into tiny spaces could cause a lot of problems.

The trouble really starts if two cats get together and they’re not neutered. They breed fast, and before you know it, there’s a Red Dwarf-style feline civilization on the lower decks.

Star Trek Enterprise captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) with his dog, Porthos.
Captain Archer and Porthos in Star Trek Enterprise. Image: Paramount.

Voyage of the space beagle

Star Trek: Enterprise revealed that space pets have been around at least as far back as Captain Archer’s beagle, Porthos. Famously energetic and mad for cigarettes, a beagle’s an unusual choice of pet for a relatively small ship. Archer’s often seen walking him around and even takes him to unexplored planets, but we never find out how they deal with his, um, waste issues. At least he lives to old age and retires with the captain.

Other dogs in SF aren’t so lucky or well looked-after. The 2009 Star Trek reboot had a descendant of Porthos accidentally transported to an unknown fate by Scotty. Meanwhile in Alien 3, Spike is the unlucky Rottweiler who briefly hosts an alien parasite before spawning the dog-alien hybrid. Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan features Kazak, a dog trapped with its owner in a chaotic space anomaly.

Beyond cats and dogs, pets are pretty rare in space travelling SF — at least I can’t remember them. In The Expanse, Ceres has a population of birds that have adapted to life inside the spinning asteroid, presumably eating bugs and food scraps. Too often, space animals and pets turn out to be aliens in disguise, like the white mice that Trillian rescues from Earth in A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or the Tines in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep.

If you can name any space pets, drop them for daycare in the comments below.

Benjy and Frankie, Trillian's super-intelligent mouse-aliens in A Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Trillian’s mice Benjy and Frankie are not what they seem to be, in A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Image: BBC

Space pets: start small

Small mammals like rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs and even rabbits might be ideal pets for the first space travellers.

Artificial burrows are easier to clean when they’re not being taken out for cuddles. They could also accommodate small centrifuges to simulate gravity.

Snakes and spiders might also adapt well to space, but astroauts might not want to be around them. Fish are more aesthetic animals than companions, but they’re a lot easier to manage, feed and clean. Escaped fish aren’t going to get very far.

Larger mammals like dogs and cats might only be viable on spaceships with artificial gravity like a centrifuge, or stationed on another moon or planet. How you get them there is another challenge, but they’re messy eaters and drinkers, let alone at the other end of the digestive journey.

Cats and dogs can both be trained to go to the toilet in dedicated locations, but can you trust them? No-one wants to chase a dog’s brown butt banana around a spaceship in zero-g. The only alternative is animal diapers.

Weightless walkies

Animals might not do any better than human in zero gravity. There’s limited research showing that quail can adapt to flying in zero-g and (crucially) landing on perches to feed and sleep. Adult rats and mice have adapted well, provided they had something to hold on to, and fish have spent time in orbit without problems.

It’s trickier if your space pets reproduce, because the current evidence is that gravity is vital to development. The skeletons of rat foetuses and pups born in zero-g were shorter and weaker than on Earth, along with abnormal muscle growth that made it hard for them to survive when they returned to Earth. Quails hatched on the Mir space station were unable to grip perches and feed without the cosmonauts’ help, unlike the adults birds brought up from Earth.

What no-one knows is how much gravity animals need to develop properly — and that includes humans. One-sixth of a gee on the Moon might be enough, or a third of Earth gravity on Mars. We’ll need companion animals to help us find out before the inevitable human pregnancy.

Radrats and glowing cats

Spaceships are not safeships: they’re full of dangerous places where animals shouldn’t go. Risks include radiation, decompression and critical equipment that’s easily damaged. Larger animals would have to be restricted or trained to avoid certain locations without a human companion.

On the other hand, radiation has an unpredictable effect on animals that reproduce rapidly. Some rats survived the nuclear tests on Pacific islands, probably deep in their holes or beneath human-made bunkers. Despite the radiation left behind, they thrived in the absence of humans and predators.

Animals in the abandoned lands around Chernobyl were far from unharmed by the radiation released in the disaster. Despite this, there’s evidence that mammals are evolving better DNA repair mechanisms. Of course, species only evolve like that because the least fit animals don’t reproduce, andnobody wants their pets to go through that.

Animals have a history of following humans wherever we go. It’s very possible that rodents will make their way to the stars along with bugs and other creatures.

Human spaceflight is highly regulated today, when mere tens of people travel every year. If that number hits thousands or greater, furry stowaways are almost inevitable. Eliminating them might require poison, traps or simply evacuating the air from affected areas. But maybe someone will bring a furry predator to control the pests. Before you know it, there’s a whole menagerie in orbit.

Doctor Who's robot companion, K-9.
K-9, Doctor Who’s robot companion. Image: BBC

Space pets: is it ethical?

Companion animals could bring many advantages to space travel, from emotional support and encouraging exercise to warning about environmental changes. All the same, there are serious moral questions about taking animals off Earth.

The first question is whether they’d be happy. No one wants companion pets dying because they’re depressed about the environment, and you can’t ask animals if they want to go into space. Fortunately, most animals are very adaptable if the environment is somewhere they can live comfortably and receive care.

Cats tend to live as they please, but dogs are frequently placed in harm’s way on Earth, from working in security to sniffing for survivors in ruined buildings. Assessing the danger to our animal companions is one of the responsibilities that comes with ownership.

Long duration missions could bring a further risk to companion animals: hunger. Almost everything that breathes is considered a delicacy somewhere on Earth, and if the food supply is disrupted, how long will astronauts wait to kebab their cute companions?

The long-term health dangers from increased radiation and reduced gravity are a greater problem. Not only is it unethical to experiment on smarter animals without a pressing purpose, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation where you can’t find the answers without conducting experiments.

As private spaceflight opens up access to space, unethical or simply selfish people will take animals into space. The question might not be should we do it, but should we do it well before someone does it very badly?

Astronaut Alexander Gerst with CIMON, a prototype astronuat companion robot, on the ISS in 2018.
Astronaut Alexander Gerst with CIMON, a prototype astronuat companion robot, on the ISS in 2018. Image: NASA/ESA

Do robot cats dream of electric mice?

With apologies to Philip K Dick, companion animals in space might be artificial before they’re real. Fiction has a few examples, although robot animals are far outweighed by android sidekicks.

Doctor Who had K-9, a wheeled smartarse with a laser in his nose who, like the Daleks, was great until he found stairs. Even R2-D2’s intelligence often comes across as a very smart border collie with a Swiss Army knife.

The 1970s Battlestar Galactica featured Muffit 2, a prototype cybernetic dog who was intended to replace animals lost in the Cylon apocalypse. Unfortunately, Muffit was played by a chimp in a suit that made it a production nightmare (not to mention animal abuse) and the character was quietly erased. The fans didn’t miss him.

A small flying robot assistant wearing a crochet animal costume, created by Microsoft Bing
A small flying robot assistant wearing a crochet animal costume, created by Microsoft Bing

Despite the fervour of today’s AI advocates, human-level intelligence might be eternally over the horizon. If we get there, it seems very likely that we’ll have to go through pet-level smarts. People will zoomorphise anything, so robot animals could potentially provide companionship without the messiness of real animals.

NASA is already testing flying robots on the ISS, which can assist astronauts in their everyday tasks. As they become commonplace, it’s almost certain that a whimsical moment will see them accessorised with eyelashes and other lifelike features. Mission planners might even encourage it, to support the mental health of small crews surviving far from home.

If not, it’s easy to imagine an astronaut whiling away the trip to Mars, crocheting costumes for the ship’s drones to personalise their artificial environment. But hobbies for long-duration spaceflight is the rich topic for another post.

Just for fun, I created an image for this story using Microsoft Bing Image Creator. I wouldn’t use AI for book covers or other commercial work, but is this acceptable when I don’t have a budget, or is it a slippery slope?

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