An eye for an i #245 Children

The monkeys that returned from space

When they returned from space, Able and Baker were as sought after as, if not more, any of the popular celebrities.   | Photo Credit: 1st Lt. Cecil W. Stoughton, US A

Among the many things that happened in the second half of the twentieth century, the space race does stand out for its significance. The Soviets and the Americans slugged it out against each other as they made their intent to be at the forefront of the field clear for one and all.

Chief among their targets, as we approached the late 1950s, was getting humans to space. It might seem simple enough now for us as we know about the International Space Station – a habitable artificial satellite in low earth orbit – but back then it was a question of life and death.

When we looked at Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight, we did learn that there were a number of deaths and grievous injuries to those who attempted the feat before him. If this were the case for a transatlantic crossing, the stakes were much higher when thinking about getting ourselves into space.

Animals in our place

Humans as we are, we sent up animals first, and let them do our work. While the Soviets predominantly did their testing using dogs, the Americans utilised monkeys. These animals played a major role in all the space advances that we see around us now.

The Americans started out with monkeys in 1948 and for the next decade saw their monkey flights fail for one reason or the other. If a rocket explosion killed a monkey on one occasion, a parachute failure meant another monkey didn’t survive the impact. Gordo, another monkey on board, survived space and reentry, but another parachute failure meant that Gordo was never recovered after sinking in the seas.

Reputation at stake

As the Soviets had considerably more success with their dogs, the pressure was on the Americans to deliver, lest they lose out in the space race. It was under these circumstances that Able — a female rhesus monkey — and Baker — a female squirrel monkey — came into the picture and their mission was named Able-Baker Mission.

In the early morning hours of May 28, 1959, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency lifted Able and Baker into space. The suborbital mission was designed to test the monkeys’ physiological reaction to spaceflight and both the monkeys were aboard the nose cone of the Jupiter ballistic missile.

16 minutes of fame

In the 16 minutes for which the flight lasted, the nose cone travelled 2,735 km, reaching a maximum altitude of about 579 km. The flight’s top speeds were over 16,000 km/hr and the two monkeys on board experienced weightlessness for around nine minutes.

The Navy vessel USS Kiowa held the task of retrieving the monkeys and even though they initially believed the nose cone had sunk, they were then able to locate it and get it on board. Launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the two monkeys were recovered from the South Atlantic near Puerto Rico, over 2,400 km away. “Able Baker perfect. No injuries or other difficulties,” was the message that they sent out.

Throughout the flight, the vital signs of Able and Baker were monitored. Heart beat, muscular reaction, body temperature, pulse velocity and the rate of breathing were all recorded in order to better understand the effects of space on living creatures.

Able, however, died a few days later. Even though there were no adverse reactions due to the space mission, she succumbed to anaesthesia that was administered to her, in order to remove the electrodes that were implanted for the mission.

Baker survived the procedure and lived for another quarter of a century, with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville as her home. She eventually died of kidney failure in 1984 and her funeral service was attended by hundreds of people.

Able, Baker and the other monkeys, dogs and animals that were put to these tasks were indeed pioneers of our space age. They might not have done it willingly, and there certainly will be criticism from animal welfare groups, but one thing is for certain – their stories will be enshrined in the annals of the human space race.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 6:06:56 AM |

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