Origin of the Bion program

Tracing its roots all the way back to the legendary Vostok spacecraft that carried the first man into space, the Bion series of satellites can orbit multiple live animals, plants and life-science experiments and then return them safely to Earth for analysis.



The Russian term "biologichesky sputnik" (biological satellite) apparently came into wide use following the launch of the Kosmos-110 spacecraft on Feb. 22, 1966. It was a modified Vostok capsule designated 3KV No. 5, which orbited the Earth for 22 days with live dogs Ugolek and Veterok onboard, in preparation for a long-duration manned mission. Along with dogs, the satellite carried cells of yeast, blood cells, and live bacteria.

By the time, Soviet cosmonauts did not spend more than five days in space and this long-duration mission reportedly revealed multiple problems with dog's health, first of all related to their muscle and bone structures. (637) As a result, Soviet scientists at the Institute of Biological Problems of Space flight, IMBP, in Moscow proposed a whole new program of life-science experiments aimed to advance fundamental understanding of space biology rather than to prepare a particular mission. On Jan. 13, 1970, the Soviet government officially endorsed the program. Just six months later, severe post-flight adaptation problems for the crew of long-duration mission onboard Soyuz-9 underscored potential practical application of such a project.

The task of building a dedicated biological satellite was given to the TsSKB design bureau in the city of Samara. TsSKB's engineers decided to modify for the purpose the Resurs-F imaging spacecraft, which itself was a descendant of the Vostok and Voskhod manned capsules. Like its predecessors, Resurs-F featured a large spherical reentry capsule and a single service module. A total of 17 experimental prototypes had to be build during the development and test program, which included helicopter drops to ensure safe operation of many delicate systems onboard the future bio-satellite. (623)

Between 1973 and 1997, a total of 11 biological satellites designated 12KS were launched on Soyuz rockets from Plesetsk, carrying 40 different live species. Six missions carried monkeys. However, initially, these purely scientific missions were hidden among classified launches within the unanimous Kosmos series, lumped together with top-secret military spacecraft.

Only in 1985, the official Soviet publication provided an overview of the biological space flight program with basic details on various missions. (2) Additional details were revealed a year later (71):

  • Kosmos-92, Kosmos-94 and Kosmos-109, which actually belonged to a series of Zenit-4 reconnaissance satellites, launched in 1965 and 1966 were reported to carry algae, plants and their seeds;
  • Kosmos-605 (the first dedicated biological satellite) was launched in 1973 and carried white rats, turtles, insects, fungi and microorganisms. The mission was paralleled with a ground simulation of all experiments inside a full-scale mockup of the reentry capsule. (2) Since experiments in this longest Bion mission were exposed only to weightlessness, the resulting data from the flight would serve as an etalon for follow-on studies featuring additional factors of space flight, such as radiation or an artificial gravity. (71)
  • Kosmos-690 studied the influence of radiation on live organisms, carrying a source of gamma-ray radiation with cesium-137 to simulate solar flares. (2) Years later, it was also revealed that another rational for the mission was to simulate the flight of a manned spacecraft in the vicinity of a nuclear explosion. (637)
  • Kosmos-782 launched in 1975 was the first Soviet satellite equipped with a 60-centimeter centrifuge producing as mach 1G of gravity, (2) (while making 54 rotations per minute (637)). It carried 25 rats. Animals were split into groups located in the motionless portion of the satellite and others located inside the centrifuge at different distances from its center. The spacecraft also carried the Bioblock experiment developed in cooperation with French and Romanian scientists -- the first foreign participants in the project. The experiment studied the influence of galactic particles on one-cell organisms.
  • Kosmos-936 carried a number of international experiments including US and French payloads on a 18-day mission. The spacecraft also carried a pair of centrifuges with rats onboard, (2) (which was spinning during the entire flight. (637))
  • Kosmos-1129 launched in 1979 carried white rats and tested electrostatic radiation shield. (2) It was also equipped with an Oazis-3 greenhouse developed by IMBP in Moscow and VNIIGD institute in Donetsk, Ukraine. The device had a planting area of around 7 square meters. (622)
  • Kosmos-1514 launched in 1983 became the first Soviet satellite carrying two monkeys Abrek and Bion, in addition to rats and fish. (2) Several female rats onboard were 10-11 days pregnant with a pregnancy term for this type of animal lasting 21-23 days. They survived the flight without any problems and produced healthy offspring 6-7 days after landing. (71) The mission had to be returned to Earth prematurely, when the telemetry showed that Bion partially unbuckled its restraint system and was able to touch sensors embedded into its brain. The situation could lead to the death of the monkey. The animal died soon after landing, when a lab technician mistakenly tested Bion's vestibular system on a swing-like device immediately after meal, causing stomach failure.
  • Kosmos-1667 flew in 1985 and also carried monkeys.

With the first signs of Gorbachev's Glasnost policy in 1986, biological missions started being publicly identified as Bion, (71) however only the last was officially designated Bion-11 and was not given a Kosmos name. As it transpired, the Bion project featured many technical challenges and engineering feats. In the aftermath of each Bion missions, post-flight research was conducted immediately after the touchdown and right at the landing site in specially designed field laboratories. (623)

Drama of Kosmos-2044 (Bion-9)

The 12KS No. 9 spacecraft was launched under name Kosmos-2044 in September 1989 and proved to be the most arduous mission in the program. Its main passengers were two monkeys. Just two days in the mission, the food delivery system for one monkey failed prompting calls to return the spacecraft home early. However it was decided to continue the flight and increase the supply of juice to the animal, while monitoring its condition carefully. As all telemetry and video showed no sings of concern in the animal, the flight continued as planned. However during the reentry maneuver, the braking engine failed to fire a prescribed time, sending the spacecraft toward landing near the town of Mirny in the extremely remote Siberian region of Yakutiya, instead of nominal landing in Kazakhstan.

The descent module touched down in the midst of thick taiga forest and in the bitter cold with temperatures minus 25 degrees C. Mission officials sent urgent wires to local medical officials and military units pleading for help in the search for the spacecraft and preventing its overcooling. Improvised rescue teams managed to cut through the forest, then started small fires around the capsule and covered it with soldiers' overcoats.

The professional recovery team arrived to the landing site whole 20 hours after the touchdown. As it turned out, all animals except for guppies fish survived the ordeal. The loss of fish indicated that the temperature inside the capsule had fallen below 12 degrees. The monkey that had already been on the thin diet during the flight now displayed signs of extreme weakness, however medical help at the landing site saved the animal. (637)

International cooperation

The international participation in the Bion project involved scientists from countries-members of the Soviet bloc (within the Interkosmos initiative), including Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as from US, France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and China.

Among biological organisms known to be carried on Bion missions were:

  • Cell cultures;
  • Tissues;
  • Unicellular organisms;
  • Insects;
  • Fish;
  • Amphibians;
  • Reptiles,
  • Avian eggs,
  • Rats;
  • Rhesus monkeys.

The IMBP institute identified fields of research as studies of biological effects of microgravity, artificial gravity, and microgravity combined with high doses of ionizing radiation. According to the organization, the Bion program made important contributions not only into fundamental life sciences but also into the development of practical medical techniques supporting manned space flight. The Bion missions also had long-running implications for the future of space flight, including the development of the base on the Moon and the expeditions to Mars, first of all in helping to develop counter-measures against harmful effects of weightlessness and space radiation on humans. (636)

With the long interruption of the Bion program in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, the IMBP still managed to conduct a number of life-science experiments onboard a pair of retrievable Foton-M satellites, even though the main focus of those missions were material-science studies.


The Russian life-science research program in space was to be revived in the second decade of the 21st century with the Bion-M satellite. It was conceived to fly in orbit for as long as six months, giving biologists considerably longer time for exposure of their experiments to weightlessness and space environment comparing to missions onboard its predecessors. The Russian space program for the 2006-2015 approved three Bion-M missions with the first reaching the launch pad in 2013. (623)


Known specifications of the Bion (12KS) satellite (637):

Internal volume of the descent module
5 cubic meters
Payload mass inside the reentry capsule
700 kilograms
Payload mass on the exterior of the spacecraft
200 kilograms
Mission duration
5-22 days
Launch vehicle
Launch site
Spacecraft prime manufacturer
TsSKB Progress in Samara
Science program developer
IMBP in Moscow


Bion biological satellite launches (624) (all from Plesetsk on Soyuz-U/11A511U rocket):

Official name
Launch date
Landing date
Mission duration


1973 Oct. 31
1973 Nov. 22

21.5 days

45 male rats, tortoises, fruit flies, Tribolumconfusum, fungi, bacteria
1974 Oct. 22
1974 Nov. 12
20.5 days
35 male rats, tortoises, fruit flioe, pine-tree seeds, fungi, bacterial cells
1975 Nov. 25
1975 Dec. 15
19.5 days
25 male rats, fruit flies, fish spawn, yeast, carrot crown galls. Carried a centrifuge
1977 Aug. 3
1977 Aug. 21
18.5 days
30 male rats, fruit flies, higher and lower plants, carrot crown galls. Carried a centrifuge
1979 Sept. 25
1979 Oct. 14
18.5 days
37 male and female rats, eggs of Japanese quails, higher and lower plants, mammal cell cultures, carrotcancerogenic galls
1983 Dec. 14
1983 Dec. 19
5 days
Two male monkeys (Abrek and Bion), 10 female rats, guppies,
crocus, corn plant shoots. Bion died soon after the premature return of the satellite.
1985 July 10
1985 July 17
7 days
Two male monkeys (Verny and Gordy), 10 male rats, fruit flies,
guppies, tritons, higher plants
1987 Sept. 29
1987 Oct. 12
12.5 days
Two male monkeys (Drema and Erosha),
10 male rats, insects, guppies, tritons, planariae, higher plants,
micro ecosystem“fish-algae”
1989 Sept. 15
1989 Sept. 29
14 days
Two male monkeys (Jakonya and Zabiyaka), 10 male rats, insects,
guppies, planariae, tritons, higher plants, microecosystem "fish-
1992 Dec. 29
1993 Jan. 10
11.6 days
Two male monkeys (Ivasha and Krosh), frogs, tritons, insects,
protozoa, cell and tissue cultures, algae, seeds, plant seeds Carried a centrifuge
1996 Dec. 24
1996 Jan. 7
15 days
Two male monkeys (Lapik Multik), tritons, crustaceae, insects, Helix poratia,
unicellular organisms, seeds. Carried a centrifuge. Multik died soon after the flight.


Life-science experiments onboard Foton-M satellites (636):

Official name
Launch date
Landing date
Mission duration

Foton-M No. 1



Destroyed in launch accident
2005 June 16
16 days
Geckos, newts, snails, microorganisms, unicellular organisms
2007 Sept. 26
12 days
Mongolian gerbils, geckos, newts, snails, microorganisms



Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: September 4, 2023

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The actual reentry capsule of the Voskhod (3KV No. 5, Kosmos-110) satellite which apparently gave rise to the Russian term "biologichesky sputnik" (biological satellite.) Dog's cabin can be visible in the center of the picture. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak

Dog cabin

A dog inside the cabin of Kosmos-110 satellite. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


Dogs that flew onboard Kosmos-110 satellite. Credit: IMBP

Dog spacesuit

Ugolek after flight aboard Kosmos-110 satellite. Credit: RGANTD


A Bios experiment package designed to accommodate rats is being loaded into a test version of the Bion satellite at the IMBP institute in Moscow sometimes before 1985. Credit: IMBP



Landing site during one of the early Bion missions. Credit: IMBP


A monkey named Bion which flew onboard Kosmos-1514 in 1983, the first Soviet mission to carry this type of animal into orbit. Credit: IMBP




A pair of monkeys during preparation for flight onboard Bion satellite at the IMBP research institute in Moscow. Credit: IMBP


A Bion satellite during pre-launch processing in Plesetsk. Credit: IMBP