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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cockroaches Venture to the Final Frontier

Just two weeks before celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the Earth's first man-made satellite, another space landmark passed almost unnoticed -- the first trip into space by a cockroach.

The flight by 54 red cockroaches from Voronezh has led to the birth of the first -- as well as the second, third, fourth and so on to the 33rd -- creatures conceived in space.

The lucky mother, Nadezhda, gave birth to her brood Sunday, Dmitry Atyakshin, who is in charge of the experiment at the biological department of the Voronezh Medical Academy, said by telephone Wednesday.

"Hope, we called her Hope, brought us ... 33 little red cockroaches," he said, using the term tarakanchiki, the affectionate form of the Russian word for cockroach. Nadezhda is the Russian word for hope.

Nadezhda is currently in isolation in a plastic container in one of the classrooms at the academy. Another mother-to-be is expected to give birth soon. She had not been given a name, Atyakshin said.

Fifty-four cockroaches were sent into space in a box measuring only 150 cubic centimeters in a Foton-M, an unmanned capsule design first used in 1985. Based on the R-7 rocket that took the first man, Yury Gagarin, into space in 1961, the Soyuz rocket was launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on Sept. 14, returning to Earth 12 days later.

The idea came as part of a winning entry from Voronezh students in a competition to design experiments for the space flight held by the Institute of Biomedical Problems, in Moscow. The experiments were to be part of ongoing studies of the physical effects of space flight.

Five experiments, all designed by students, were carried out in connection with the launch, said Sergei Ryazansky, a former cosmonaut who coordinated the project for the institute.

On their return, the cockroaches were sluggish and slow -- and would have no doubt fallen easy prey to a slipper, as drawn in a cartoon in RIA-Novosti.

Although the first flight of man's best friend, a dog named Laika in 1957, has become the stuff of space legend, Nadezhda and her 53 pals are not household names -- although their relatives may be household pests. The results of the experiment may, however, bear important fruit in the future.

The study of the space cockroaches -- or tarakanavty, as they have been dubbed, combining the Russian words for cockroach and cosmonaut -- is part of broader scientific study into the effect of space on living organisms. With the arrival of Nadezhda's offspring, the effects of conception and reproduction in space can also be examined.

The idea behind the experiment was to see how cockroaches -- which can survive in the harshest conditions, including a month without food and water -- would adapt to life in space. The students did, however, leave food for their charges, in the form of some dried fruit in the container for them to gorge themselves on as they orbited the planet.

"What if man flies somewhere very far away?" Atyakshin asked. "Of course, these are cockroaches and not people, but the general picture is still the same. The information can be applied to flights by humans."

"The question is whether life can continue away from the Earth during extended space flight," he said.

Former cosmonaut Ryazansky agreed, saying the experiment would help scientists further understand the physical effects of weightlessness, an understanding that will be vital if man ever decides to embark on space journeys lasting for years.

"They were not planning to get a new generation [of cockroaches]," Ryazansky said. "This is a nice result. ... They will check how well these newborn cockroaches that were formed in stressful conditions -- and space flight is a stressful condition -- adapt."

When the students received the initial go-ahead for their experiment, they ran into a problem: finding the cockroaches.

Searches of cellars, warehouses and attics proved fruitless. "It became clear that red cockroaches are rare in Voronezh," Atyakshin said.

After three months of looking, the cockroaches were eventually found in a government building. Atyakshin refused to say which building, although he did say that it was not a local tax office.

The students will continue to study the trip's effects on their subjects and their offspring for at least another year.