Why the Russians Decapitated Major Tom

It was a little before 7 in the morning in western Russia when Major Tom reentered the atmosphere. Though he had no window to see the approaching Earth, the return had been announced earlier that day, when the braking engines were activated for six minutes, and his recovery capsule separated from the rest of the spacecraft. After having endured 30 days in space, in which he completed 477 orbits around the Earth, it was about time to come back. It was time to face, once again, the effects of gravity.

As soon as the capsule reached the atmosphere, the heating and the G forces began. Major Tom was thrown against the roof of his compartment while the air slowed the capsule and the outside temperature rose to about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius). When he reached an altitude of nine kilometers, a parachute opened, throwing him back to the floor (which was about 10 centimeters from the roof). At 7:11 a.m. on Sunday, May 19, 2013, the Bion-M1 spacecraft finally landed in the green field of a Russian farm.

Alexander Andreev-Andrievskiy would arrive 10 minutes later, in one of seven military helicopters that headed to the landing site. The 30-year-old biologist had been awake all night in the nearby city of Orenburg, discussing the latest information that arrived, by telemetry, from the spacecraft. “I was very anxious,” he told me. “Once I got there I still had to wait another 40 minutes for the capsule to be dismantled. And I did not know if the mice were doing well.”

Every human expansion—be it to Europe, Asia, and much later, by boat, to the Americas—has been done in the unwanted company of mice.

Major Tom was just one of 45 mice that had been lofted into low-Earth orbit that spring. Unfortunately, information sent back to Earth over the course of the previous month had suggested that at least half of them had died. But there was always a chance that the computer was sending incorrect data, or that the remaining crew had died during reentry. This is why, along with everything else that happened on that morning, Andreev-Andrievskiy remembers best the moment he first saw a mouse moving in the cage. “I was happy, but there was no time for emotion,” he recalled. “It was too much work.”

Once removed from the capsule, the cages were taken to an orange tent, improvised in the field as a laboratory. There, with the help of tweezers, Andreev-Andrievskiy took the mice by the tails, one by one, and placed them in a clean compartment to do the final count. Out of the 45 rodent cosmonauts, 16 had survived. One was Major Tom.

A WARM RECEPTION: The heat-scored Bion M-1 satellite, freshly returned from space, is greeted by seven military helicopters.All photos courtesy of IMBP / Oleg Voloshin

Every human expansion—be it to Europe, Asia, and much later, by boat, to the Americas—has been done in the unwanted company of mice. The abilities to run fast, to squeeze into small spaces, and to eat almost anything have made them the second most successful mammal on Earth. Now, as humans set their sights on extraterrestrial expansion, rodents—more specifically, mice—are once again in the vanguard.

The story of mice in space stretches back at least to 1900, the year

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