Science

The Amazing Story of the Cold War Space-Egg Race

You’ve probably heard of Laika, the space dog, and Ham, the space chimp. But what about Kentucky, the space chicken?

Remember when we said that birds have never been to space? Well, as it turns out, that's not true—a tip from a reader led us to the two greatest (and only) avian experiments in space history.

Between 1955 and 1991, the United States and the former Soviet Union were immersed in the Space Race, with each country clamoring to best the other in aeronautics. The USSR beat the United States by sending Sputnik 1, the first satellite, and Yuri Gagarin, the first human, into orbit. As it happens, the USSR also succeeded in besting the United States in another space first: an interstellar chick. 

In 1979, the Russians loaded Japanese quail eggs onto Soyuz 32 to study the impacts of zero-gravity environments on the development of embryos—and life as a whole. The USSR also wanted to determine whether a Japanese Quail could hatch in space and eventually be a viable food source for cosmonauts.

The experiment didn’t go quite as planned: The quail embryos developed too slowly on the shuttle, and some exhibited severe deformities. The specific inhibitors are unknown, but later experiments on fertilized eggs on the Mir space station showed that higher-than-usual radiation and temperatures may have been part of the cause. The cosmonauts kept trying, however. Finally, in 1990, the first healthy quail chick hatched on Mir, becoming not only the first bird in space, but the first vertebrate (that we know of) to be born outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Five more chicks followed.

Still, there were some kinks to work out. “The initial problem was that they found that the birds wouldn’t latch on to anything, and so they couldn’t feed themselves,” says Robert Pearlman, a space historian and editor of CollectSPACE (and Audubon's most cosmic tipster.)

Eventually, the cosmonauts figured out that the chicks could feed themselves if they were equipped with harnesses. But even with the extra footing, the quail seemed flummoxed by zero-gravity life: They showed no interest in mating, which meant their long-term viability as a food source was limited. Still, Russia had succeeded in a major way.

Around the time the cosmoquails were busting out of their space shells, the United States was working on its own parallel experiment. In 1986, NASA equipped the Challenger Space Shuttle with 12 fertilized chicken eggs nestled in an incubator. The experiment was thought up by John Vellinger, a middle schooler in Indiana, who presented it at a competition hosted by NASA and the National Science Teachers Association. Vellinger ended up winning the contest, and NASA began working to secure a corporate sponsor for the project. Ultimately, the agency arranged a meeting for Vellinger—then a freshman at Purdue University—to pitch his idea to KFC executives. The fast-food chicken giant went for it.

“They were all on board because they wanted to sponsor science and education, and they also obviously wanted the PR aspects out of it as well,” says Vellinger, who is now president and CEO of the aerospace company Techshot.

Vellinger says he came up with the idea for the project after a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which had an exhibit on how chicken embryos develop. He, his dad, and his brother then recreated the exhibit at home. By hatching chickens himself, Vellinger learned that because gravity drags the yolk to the bottom of the shell, eggs need to turned periodically. When his eighth-grade teacher asked if he wanted to put together a space-related project for the NASA contest, Vellinger wondered whether zero gravity would change the way embryos need to be cared for.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that would be a great thing to try up in space,’ ” Vellinger says. So, he set to work developing an incubator that could withstand a trip in a space shuttle. “We had to create the temperature, the humidity—all the different aspects for that egg to develop in that microgravity environment.”

Unfortunately, the first attempt at the experiment never made it into space. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute into its flight, taking the lives of all seven crew members on board and destroying Vellinger’s eggs. Three years later, NASA attempted the experiment again, this time with 32 fertilized eggs on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Half of the embryos were laid nine days before the launch, and half were laid two days before to help scientists get a sense of how microgravity affected different stages of development.

The new endeavor was billed as the Chicken Embryo Development in Space experiment, or in short, Chix in Space. The eggs orbited the Earth 80 times over the course of five days; about a week after they touched down, the first chick hatched. Named Kentucky, he was sent to live out his days at the Louisville Zoo, where he had signage proclaiming him the original recipe of space chickens. He was one of eight Chix in Space that survived, Vellinger says: all from the batch of eggs fertilized nine days before launch.

And so ended the zero-gravity reign of baby birds. (Chix in Space did one more small trip after Discovery, but the experiment wrapped up in the early 1990s.) Pearlman says scientists still don’t know why some eggs in the experiments hatched and others didn’t, though they did learn about the importance of good incubator equipment. Still, there probably won’t be another cosmoquail or space chick soon.

“[While] there’s more to be learned, the restrictions on flying biological creatures have increased over the years, and there’s limited space—no pun intended—onboard the International Space Station for experiments,” Pearlman says. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t some day return to flying birds, but I don’t know of any current plans.” (Both NASA and KFC declined to comment, so it looks like it's up to Elon Musk.)

For now, Chix in Space and Russia's Japanese Quail experiments remain just a short chapter in space history—and a relatively unknown one at that. “I don’t think this stands out among the more iconic [achievements],” Pearlman says. People are more likely to remember Laika, the first space dog, or Ham, the first space chimp. Even Felicette, the first space cat, has a statue in Paris in her honor.

But Vellinger doesn’t need an official memorial for Kentucky and his fellow avian pioneers; the Techshot founder is living Chix in Space every day, seeing that it's a major part of the company’s origin story. Back at home, he keeps a flock of earthly chickens, which he says are “simply great creatures.”

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