Day 531: Ground Control To Major Space-Monkey

originally published June 14, 2013

Today I’d like to take a somber moment and toast the fallen. No, not our fallen troops, and not the victims of horrific recent disasters – they deserve our respect, but they also get a lot of respect from writers far more respectable than myself. I prefer to shine the spotlight where others don’t care until they realize that – hey! – maybe they do!

Therefore my tear-stained beer stein is today raised toward the unknown heroes, those who have perished in the name of science. Those who have laid down their lives – albeit involuntarily – so that the rest of us could see our science fiction dreams come true. Yes, I’m talking about space monkeys.

And not the ones from that 90’s cartoon starring Michael Dorn and Malcolm McDowell. Though I’m sure they were pretty special too.

Before packing their well-trained humans into pointy-ended Pringles cans and hurling them above the sky, NASA wanted to run some tests first. While science offered no logical reason why our skulls might implode upon conquering the limits of our atmosphere, it was a much cheaper option to send up a monkey rather than a human, just to be sure. Besides, monkeys are built like us, kind of shaped like tiny versions of us, and they look so cute in those little spacesuits.

This was before the era of animal rights, back when there was no guilt in labeling monkeys as ‘primate cargo’. It was a different time: we still tested our makeup and nail polish on dolphins, regularly made usable coats out of squirrels and pigeons, and used penguins as slalom skiing gates during the Olympics. No one had a problem with monkeys doing some dangerous space-tests for us.

Which is a good thing, since most of them died.

The first NASA test monkeys were sent into the skies in the 1940’s. Albert, a rhesus monkey, was handed his own slice of history on June 11, 1948, when he was crammed into a V2 rocket and launched over 39 miles into the air. He suffocated during the flight. Albert II, pictured above, gets the official billing of first monkey in space – he broke the 100km line that separates the atmosphere from outer space. In fact, this pivotal first reach beyond our planet took place sixty-four years ago today, on June 14, 1949.

Albert II was hailed as a hero. Posthumously, of course – his parachute didn’t deploy and Albert II and his vessel were flattened upon impact. Still, NASA considered this to be a success, and promptly launched Albert III in September. The third time was not a charm though – Albert III’s rocket exploded just 35,000 feet above the earth. Albert IV, who was sent flying in December of the same year, once again broke the space barrier, and once again a faulty parachute claimed the little hairy hero before anyone could tell him what an awesome adventure he’d just had.

Figuring the problem might be contained within the V2, scientists switched to the skinnier, snazzier Aerobee rocket in 1951, when Albert V took off. Why all these primates went by the same moniker I have no idea. Neither did Albert V, who perished when his parachute didn’t deploy. So much for the Aerobee.

But wait! Albert VI survived the trip! So did the eleven mice on board with him! Unfortunately, the recovery team – who in all fairness probably didn’t count on being needed – was slow in getting to the landed capsule, which was roasting in the New Mexico desert. Albert and two of the mice died due to complications from overheating two days after the flight.

Next up was Gordo in 1958, the little South American squirrel monkey who transmitted a lot of valuable data back to earth regarding the lack of ill-effects a brief period of weightlessness would have upon one’s internal organs. Gordo’s ride took him 290 miles above the earth. Then, because it seems to be much harder to build a properly deploying parachute than to build a capsule to launch into space, Gordo died as a result of yet another malfunction.

In 1959, a pair of monkeys – Abel and Miss Baker – were sent up yet again, this time aboard the JUPITER AM-18. Both survived the flight, but Abel died during surgery just three days later. Miss Baker lived to tell the tale to her monkey friends. She actually enjoyed a long life, passing away peacefully in 1984. She was honored with a proper burial at the United States Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. As for her crewmate, Abel… well…

Yes, Abel was stuffed and mounted for display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space Museum, the way all our heroic astronauts should be.

Other flights followed: Sam and Miss Sam took part in the Mercury program, but the real headlines went to Ham the Astrochimp, the first chimpanzee to be tucked into a rocket and sent a-soarin’, on January 31, 1961. Ham was trained to press a lever within five seconds of seeing a little blue light in front of him. Doing so earned him a banana pellet. Failing to press the lever netted Ham an electric shock to his feet. Even though the ship lost pressure mid-flight, Ham’s suit kept him alive, and he demonstrated that a person (well, a chimp) could continue to perform small tasks whilst weightless in outer space.

Ham lived a long life also, dying in 1983. At that time, he was buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Well, Ham minus his bones was buried there – the army took his skeleton for unknown ‘experiments’.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to shake hands with the darkness of space, and from then on, it was less common to send monkeys up there. Goliath and Scatback were two more American monkeys who were launched in ’61, dying of an explosion and an unrecovered sea landing respectively. Bonny, a pig-tailed macaque, was sent on the first multi-day flight in 1969, and two numbered, unnamed monkeys took a shuttle trip in 1985.

France launched a pair of monkeys in 1967 as well, and the Russians, Argentinians and Iranians have all sent non-human primates into the sky.

These creatures, who would have had animal rights activists holding brightly-painted signs and marching in front of Cape Canaveral today, did help to make space travel possible, and should be held in as high esteem as any of our pioneering astronauts. Okay, maybe not. It was courage and fortitude that drove the first humans into those rockets, whereas these monkeys were driven by simply not having a choice.

Nevertheless, the space monkeys have earned a raising of my glass today. I may even down a few banana pellets in their honor tonight, if I can find any. Thanks, monkeys.

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