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Space Chimps

A History of Primate Space Missions




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Early space researchers were concerned about the perils of space flight. Before humans actually traveled into space, there were theories that humans might not be able to survive long periods of weightlessness. The scientific community had serious debates about its affect on humans, so US and Russian scientists used animals - mainly monkeys, chimps and dogs - in order to test their ability to launch a living organism into space and bring it back alive and unharmed.

On June 11, 1948, a V-2 Blossom launched into space from White Sands, New Mexico carrying the first monkey astronaut, Albert I, a rhesus monkey. He flew to over 63 km (39 miles), but died of suffocation during the flight. Lack of fanfare and documentation made Albert an unsung hero of animal astronauts. Three days later, a second V-2 flight carrying a live Air Force Aeromedical Laboratory monkey, Albert II, attained an altitude of 83 miles (technically making him the first monkey in space). While he survived the flight, he died on impact.

An unanaesthetized mouse was launched in another V-2 on August 31, 1948. The mouse was photographed in flight and survived the impact. The third V2 monkey flight, carrying Albert III (a cynomolgus monkey) launched on September 16, 1949. He died when his rocket exploded at 35,000 feet. On December 12, 1949, the last V-2 monkey flight was launched at White Sands. Albert IV, a rhesus monkey attached to monitoring instruments, was the payload. It was a successful flight, reaching 130.6 km., with no ill effects on the monkey until impact, when it died. In May 1950, the last of the five Aeromedical Laboratory V-2 launches (known as the Albert Series) carried a mouse that was photographed in flight and survived impact.

The following year in September, Yorick, a monkey, and 11 mice crewmates were recovered after an Aerobee missile flight of 236,000 feet at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Yorick enjoyed a bit of fame as the press covered the first monkey to live through a space flight. The next May, two Philippine monkeys, Patricia and Mike, were enclosed in an Aerobee nose section at Holloman Air Force Base. Researchers placed Patricia in a seated position while her partner Mike was prone, to test the differences during rapid acceleration. Keeping the monkeys company were two white mice, Mildred and Albert, inside a slowly rotating drum. Fired 36 miles up at a speed of 2000 mph, the two monkeys were the first primates to reach such a high altitude. The capsule was recovered safely by descending with a parachute. Both monkeys moved to the both at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC and eventually died of natural causes, Patricia two years later and Mike in 1967.

Meanwhile the USSR was watching these experiments with interest. When they started experiments with living creatures, they primarily worked with dogs. (See Dogs in Space.)

The year after the USSR launched Laika, the dog, into space, the US flew Gordo, a squirrel monkey, 600 miles high in a Jupiter rocket. As later human astronauts would, Gordo splashed down in the Atlantic ocean. Unfortunately, while signals on his respiration and heartbeat proved humans could withstand a similar trip, a flotation mechanism failed and his capsule was never found in the Atlantic Ocean.

On May 28 of that year (1959), Able, an American-born rhesus monkey, and Baker, a South American squirrel monkey launched in the nose cone of an Army Jupiter missile. They rose to an altitude of 300 miles and were recovered unharmed. Unfortunately, Able did not live very long as she died from complications of surgery to remove an electrode on June 1. Baker lived happily until he died of kidney failure in 1984 at the age of 27.

Later that year saw the launch of one of the most famous space monkeys. Sam, a rhesus monkey who got his name from the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine, launched on December 4 in a cylindrical capsule within the Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket in order to test the launch escape system (LES). Approximately one minute into the flight, traveling at a speed of 3685 mph, the Mercury capsule aborted from the Little Joe launch vehicle. After attaining an altitude of 51 miles, the spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Sam was recovered, several hours later, with no ill effects from his journey. He was later returned to the colony in which he trained, where he died in November 1982 and his remains were cremated.

Sam's mate, Miss Sam , another rhesus monkey, was launched on January 21, 1960, for another test of the LES. The Mercury capsule attained a velocity of 1800 mph and an altitude of 9 miles. After landing in the Atlantic Ocean 10.8 miles downrange from the launch site, Miss Sam was also retrieved in overall good condition. She was also returned to her training colony until her death on an unknown date.

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