This past weekend, the spherical re-entry capsule from the Russian spacecraft Bion-M landed. Inside was a menagerie of mice, lizards, and fish. And while the fact that this was the longest animal-only mission ever, what's really incredible is that their spaceship is a direct descendent of the first ever manned spacecraft.
The spacecraft the animals rode in — I don't think any of the rats were trained to pilot the vehicle, at least not yet — is a fascinating artifact, an updated version of the first-ever manned spaceship, Vostok. In some ways, the Bion series of spacecraft is like a Hindustan Ambassador, or the old VW Microbus built in Brazil. An archaic design, improbably still in use today.
The basic look of the Bion, the spherical re-entry capsule and the truncated-cone service module, is essentially the same as used by Vostok back in 1961. There have been changes and updates, of course — there's a disc-shaped electronics module mounted on top now, but other than that, it could easily pass for a Vostok in a crowded bar.
Technically, the Bion is based on the Zenit spy satellite, but what's really fascinating is that the Zenit is basically the same platform as the Vostok manned spacecraft as well. And there's a good reason for that: the original designer, Sergei Korolev, was a great liar.
See, back in the un-ironic heat of the Cold War, what the Soviet Union really, really wanted was a spy satellite. Sputniks that bleeped were lots of fun, but if the Soviets were going to go through all the cost and effort of putting things in space, what they wanted those things to do was take pictures of what we were up to in America.
Now, the rocket men that the Soviet Union had to develop these spacecraft weren't that interested in spy satellites. They were, deep down, nerds, and like all nerds they wanted to go to space themselves. And to do that you need a spaceship, not a spy satellite. So, their lead designer, Sergei Korolev, had an idea.
He'd design the spy satellite the Soviet Politburo wanted, no problem. But that spy satellite was really a modification of the manned spaceship he really wanted to build. That may be tricky to prove, but it is well established that the photoreconnisance satellite (later called Zenit) was built on essentially the same platform as the Vostok manned spaceship, which freed him from the worry that the military project would suck up all the money.
So, when the Soviets realized they could score big points global status-wise by getting a man in space before those decadent Americans, they asked Korolev how quickly he could design a manned spaceship. And, holy crap, he could just swap the cameras from the pressurized re-entry sphere and replace them with a dude sucking borscht out of a tube. And there you go, boom, instant spaceship. How about that!
Much later, that spaceship got replaced, that spy satellite became obsolete, but that same basic spacecraft just wouldn't die. Just like how you traditionally hand your dog the keys to your car when it gets too old, Vostok was changed to ferry animals instead of people. Many turtles, gerbils, snails, and fish and mice and other animals have ridden in the Bion series of research satellites since 1973.
You just can't keep a good spaceship down.