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The first animal in space wasn't a hamster, a rat or other small creature. It was in fact a dog by the name of Laika, and she was shuttled into orbit on November 3, 1957 in Sputnik II. She survived for seven days in space, proving to a skeptical world that living creatures could survive in space.
If you want to go to Mars and you're getting ready to go into college, enroll in The Illinois Institute of Technology's Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering Program. There you'll be introduced to the Odysseus Program, a real life venture lead by eleven students and staff of the department. They are designing a manned spacecraft that should be able to reach Mars in the near future.