• Aeryn Avilla

Planet of the Apes: US Missions that Sent Primates Into Space

Updated: May 28

The use of animals in aeronautical exploration dates back to 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster on a hot air balloon flight. The United States in particular used high-altitude balloon flights to test radiation exposure and physiological responses of rodents, cats, dogs, frogs, and most notably, monkeys.


Space chimp Ham holding newspaper after his successful flight

Ham the chimp posing with a newspaper covering his flight in 1961 (NASA)


The US launched a number of primate flights using rockets from 1948 to 1961, along with one flight in 1969 and one in 1985. France, the USSR, and Russia also launched monkeys into space in later years. American monkeys included rhesus macaque, crab-eating macaque, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees. No monkey flew more than once and most were under anesthesia during launch. Unfortunately, the death rate was very high— most died soon after landing.


V2 rocket launch from the US

The first of these primates was Albert, a rhesus macaque who launched aboard a V2 rocket on June 11, 1948. He did not make it to space and died of suffocation during the flight. He was followed by Albert II, another rhesus who became the first monkey and primate in space on June 14, 1949, traveling 21 miles (34 km) above the Kármán line. He died on impact as a result of a parachute failure. Albert III, a crab-eating macaque, launched on September 16 but died when his V2 rocket exploded at 35,000 feet (10.7 km). Albert IV was the last monkey launched on a V2 and like Albert II died on impact on December 8. Starting in 1951, Aerobee rockets were used in place of V2's. On April 18, Albert V was launched and killed due to parachute failure. Albert VI, also called Yorick [1], launched on September 20 along with eleven mice. Though he did not quite reach space [2], he was the first monkey to survive landing (the Soviet dogs Dezik and Tsygan were the first living creatures to survive a trip to space in July). He perished two hours later due to stress and overheating in the sealed capsule sitting in the hot New Mexico desert. Patricia and Mike were two Philippine monkeys who flew on May 21, 1952 and survived the flight. They too did not reach space.


On December 13, 1958, the Army launched a squirrel monkey named Gordo (also known as Old Reliable) aboard a Jupiter rocket. Though he survived most of the trip, the nose cone's recovery parachute failed to deploy as it fell back to Earth, slamming into the Atlantic Ocean and sinking to the floor 1,302 nautical miles (2,411 km) downrange from Cape Canaveral. It was never recovered. However, his respiration and heartbeat proved humans could survive a similar trip.


On May 28, 1959, a rhesus macaque named Miss Able and a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker launched aboard another Jupiter. Able was from Independence, Kansas, while Baker was from Peru. Their names were taken from the 1943-1955 US military phonetic alphabet. Able died on June 1 while undergoing surgery to remove an infected electrode. She is preserved and on display at the National Air and Space Museum. Miss Baker became the first monkey to survive the physical stresses of space (and the following medical procedures) and spent the rest of her days first at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida, and then at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama where she entertained guests and received more than a hundred fan letters a day. She died on November 29, 1984 at the age of 27, attaining the record for oldest living squirrel monkey, and is buried on museum grounds. You can buy a stuffed toy of Miss Baker from the Air Force Space & Missile Museum here.


Miss Baker with model Jupiter rocket

Miss Baker posing with a model Jupiter rocket (NASA)


A rhesus macaque named Sam launched on the Little Joe 2 flight of the Mercury Program from Wallops Island, Virginia, on December 4. On January 21, 1960, Miss Sam, another rhesus, flew on Little Joe 1B. Though this flight only reached an altitude of 8 miles (13 km), it tested the Mercury spacecraft's launch escape tower. The name Sam is an acronym for School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.


Perhaps the most famous of all the space-bound primates is a chimpanzee named Ham. Ham stands for Holloman Aerospace Medicine, which is located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He flew on Mercury-Redstone 2 on January 31, 1961 and was trained to pull levers to receive rewards of banana pellets and avoid electric shocks. His flight demonstrated the ability to perform basic tasks during spaceflight and was a crucial step in preparing man to enter space. It also tested new systems such as environmental control, live retrorockets, and voice communication. Ham was one of six chimps trained for the mission (two males and four females) and his backup was a female named Minnie. Though a number of problems arose during his flight, the mission was successful and Ham performed his tasks well. By the time Navy helicopters arrived at the spacecraft, which had splashed down further downrange than anticipated, it was on its side and slowly becoming submerged in the water. Fortunately both Ham and his spacecraft, Mercury spacecraft #5, were recovered. However, the malfunctions occurring in both the rocket and capsule determined the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was not ready for manned flight. This resulted in another booster development flight in March. If that flight had not taken place, Mercury-Redstone 3 would have launched three weeks before Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1, making Alan Shepard the first human in space. Ham lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. for seventeen years before being transferred to a zoo in North Carolina where he lived with other chimpanzees. He died on January 19, 1983 and is buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. His spacecraft is now on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California.


Ham in his specially-fitted couch

Ham in his specialized fitted couch similar to those the Mercury Astronauts would use (NASA)


A squirrel monkey named Goliath perished when his Atlas rocket exploded thirty-five seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral on November 10, 1961. A rhesus macaque called Scatback flew a sub-orbital Atlas flight on December 20 but was lost at sea after splashing down.


Enos and his handler

Enos was another chimpanzee who flew on Mercury-Atlas 5 on November 29. The name Enos means "man" in Hebrew. He flew two orbits around the Earth and became the first chimp (and primate) to circle the globe. Enos was originally supposed to orbit three times but a malfunctioning thruster caused the flight to be terminated after two. Like Ham, he performed his portion of the mission well. He was the sixth mammal to orbit the Earth, following the Soviet dogs Laika (Sputnik 2 in 1957), Belka and Strelka (Korabl-Sputnik 2 in 1960), Chernushka (Korabl-Sputnik 4 in 1961), and Zvezdochka (Korabl-Sputnik 5 in 1961). For more information on the Soviet space dogs, read "Man's Best Friend: The Soviet Missions that Sent Dogs Into Space". MA-5 was the final step in preparing men for orbit. On February 20 the following year, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Enos died of non-space related causes eleven months after his flight at Holloman Air Force Base. He was succeeded by four successful US manned orbital flights of the Mercury program.


After these few flights in late 1961, NASA focused solely on sending men into space and discontinued future primate missions. It was not until summer of 1969 another monkey flew in space on an American rocket. Bonny, a pig-tailed macaque, flew on Biosatellite 3 from June 29 to July 8. Like Ham and Enos, he was also trained to operate a food dispenser. It was the first multi-day monkey flight and was supposed to last thirty days. However, Bonny's health deteriorated rapidly during the first week and he returned to Earth on July 7. He died the next day after recovery. The final American primate flight took place in 1985 during STS-51-B, the Space Shuttle mission that carried Spacelab 3. It consisted of two squirrel monkeys named No. 3165 and No. 384-80.


Space monkeys have been in the eye of the public since their first successful flights. An episode of the American science-fiction television series Quantum Leap entitled "The Wrong Stuff" focuses on NASA's testing and experimenting on chimpanzees. It aired in 1991 and takes place a week before Mercury-Redstone 2. The animated comedy Space Chimps was released in 2008.


Similar to the canine flights undertaken by the Soviet Union during the early days of space exploration, American monkey flights gave the nation the experience needed to send men into space. Without these animals' sacrifices, the space program could have suffered greater losses of life and have faced termination. Their contributions to science and technology could not have been made by anyone or anything else and just as they are mankind's ancestors, they paved the way for man's small steps and giant leaps into the final frontier.


Humorous comic about Ham teaching the Mercury astronauts

"Then, at 900,000 feet, you'll get the feeling that you must have a banana."

(Daily Mail, February 23, 1961)



Author's note: This was one of the most entertaining posts to write— thanks for reading and please like and share!



[1] I was unable to find any information as to why Albert VI was also called Yorick. Yorick was the name of the deceased court jester in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

[2] At the time, the US declared space at an altitude of 50 miles, which is below the internationally recognized 62 miles.



Bibliography

  • Betz, Eric. “A Brief History of Chimps in Space.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 21 Apr. 2020, www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/a-brief-history-of-chimps-in-space.

  • Gray, Tara. “Animals in Space.” NASA, NASA, 1998, history.nasa.gov/animals.html.

  • Wall, Mike. “Monkeys in Space: A Brief Spaceflight History.” Space.com, Space, 28 Jan. 2013, www.space.com/19505-space-monkeys-chimps-history.html.

Images

  • V2 rocket: Public Domain image

  • Enos and his handler: NASA

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