50th Anniversary of Space-Monkey Success
Fifty years ago, two girls, Able and Baker, went to space. After their brief spaceflight on May 28, 1959, the two pioneers were hailed as heroes and made the cover of LIFE, which lauded them as America’s Space Travelers. Able, a seven-pound rhesus monkey, and Baker, a one-pound squirrel monkey, paved the way for the modern astronaut–they were the first primates to survive the trip to space as well as the landing.
Today, says Jim David, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, their flight is just “one of many long-forgotten space events.” This one had special significance because, at the time, so little was known about the effects that space would have on living things. “This was a very important step in determining the biomedical effects of spaceflight,” David says. “Step by step, we learned that, absent massive radiation doses, accident, or malfunction, spaceflight doesn’t kill.”
Before Able and Baker, the U.S. had sent several other animals up to space, but none had survived the trip and the landing. The two space monkeys brought back with them a wealth of information–body temperature, muscle reaction, respiration rate–collected during the 15-minute flight, nine minutes of which was spent in weightlessness.
Able–who was born in Kansas at a monkey exhibit built by the Works Progress Administration–survived for four days after the landing. She succumbed to the ill effects of anesthesia during an operation to remove electrodes that had been implanted pre-flight. You can still visit her. She’s stuffed, in her space cradle, and on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Baker, an immigrant from Peru, lived until she was 27 and is now buried next to the parking lot at NASA’s Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. — Jeff Chu