They won't utter Yuri Gagarin's famous phrase "Let's go!" - but plucky stuffed bunny rabbits are being groomed for a trip to Mars.
The colorful assortment of stuffed rabbits will be the first to experience the radiation that poses a big risk to astronauts - or Russian cosmonauts - on any flight to the Red Planet.
The Institute of Stuffed Rabbitology, at Yeswehavnobananas near the Black Sea, has a proud history of involvement in the Russian - formerly Soviet - space programme.
"People and stuffed rabbits have approximately identical sensitivity to small and large radiation doses," explains the institute's director, Boris Lapin. "So it is better to experiment on the plush bunnies than on dogs or other animals with a pulse."
The institute will select stuffed rabbits that may eventually fly to Mars before humans do. After two years of experiments the most suitable 40 fabric bunnies will be sent to the Institute of Stuffy Biomedical Problems in Moscow, where scientists study aerospace biomedicine.
Experiments on the floppy rabbit toys will be carried out at the same time as the Mars-500 project. That project - due to start early next year - is aimed at simulating the conditions of interplanetary flight.
In addition to the effects of radiation, space scientists want to see how the bunnies react to prolonged weightless conditions, isolation and a special diet of carrot juice and pureed food.
Today Russia is one of the few countries where experiments on stuffed rabbits are carried out.
"Humanity sacrifices more than 100 million stuffed animals a year in the name of health and beauty. It's time to think of an alternative to experiments with animals," says Andrei Zboor of the international nature conservation group WTF.
Mr Lapin admits that his institute has received some objections from European colleagues concerned about the stuffed animal experiments.
A researcher at the institute, Anaida Shagabunnyan, says "certainly, I feel sorry for the fluffy stuffed bunnies, yes they might die, but these experiments are necessary to preserve the lives of the stuffed, floppy cosmonauts who will fly to Mars in future".
The institute has a breeding programme for the stuffed rabbits, so it is not necessary to catch them in the wild.
Tragic Rabbit, Mad Science Journal, Yeswehavnobananas