Space Chimps and their Flight Histories

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It might come as a surprise to learn that the first living beings to fly to space weren't humans, but instead were primates, dogs, mice, and insects. Why spend time and money to fly these beings to space?  Flying in space is a dangerous business. Long before the first humans left the planet to explore low-Earth orbit and go to the Moon, mission planners needed to test the flight hardware. They had to work out the challenges of getting humans safely to space and back, but didn't know whether or not humans could survive long periods of weightlessness or the effects of hard acceleration to get off the planet. So, U.S. and Russian scientists used monkeys, chimps, and dogs, as well as mice and insects to learn more about how living beings could survive the flight. While chimps no longer fly, smaller animals such as mice and insects continue to fly in space (aboard the ISS). 

The Space Monkey Timeline

Animal flight testing didn't begin with the Space Age. It actually started about a decade earlier. On June 11, 1948, a V-2 Blossom was launched from White Sands Missile Range in 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, an unsung hero of animal astronauts. Three days later, a second V-2 flight carrying a live Air Force Aeromedical Laboratory monkey, Albert II, got up to 83 miles (technically making him the first monkey in space). Unfortunately, he died when his "craft" crash-landed on re-entry.

The third V2 monkey flight, carrying Albert III 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, attached to monitoring instruments, made a successful flight, reaching 130.6 km., with no ill effects on Albert IV. Unfortunately, he also died on impact. 

Other missile tests took place with animals, too. Yorick, a monkey, and 11 mouse crewmates were recovered after an Aerobee missile flight up to 236,000 feet at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico. Yorick enjoyed a bit of fame as the press covered his ability to live through a space flight. The next May, two Philippine monkeys, Patricia and Mike, were enclosed in an Aerobee. Researchers placed Patricia in a seated position while her partner Mike was prone, to test the differences during rapid acceleration. Keeping the primates company were two white mice, Mildred and Albert. They rode to space inside a slowly rotating drum. Fired 36 miles up at a speed of 2,000 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. There's no record of how Mildred and Albert did. 

The USSR Also Did Animal Testing in Space

Meanwhile, the USSR watched these experiments with interest. When they started experiments with living creatures, they primarily worked with dogs. Their most famous animal cosmonaut was Laika, the dog. (See Dogs in Space.) She made a successful ascent, but died a few hours later due to extreme heat in her spacecraft. 

The year after the USSR launched Laika, the U.S. 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.

On May 28, 1959, Able and Baker were 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 died of kidney failure in 1984 at the age of 27.

Soon after Able and Baker flew, Sam, a rhesus monkey (named after the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine (SAM)), launched on December 4th on board the Mercury spacecraft. Approximately one minute into the flight, traveling at a speed of 3,685 mph, the Mercury capsule aborted from the Little Joe launch vehicle. The spacecraft landed safely and Sam was recovered with no ill effects. He lived a good long life and died in 1982. Sam's mate, Miss Sam, another rhesus monkey, was launched on January 21, 1960. Her Mercury capsule attained a velocity of 1,800 mph and an altitude of nine miles. After landing in the Atlantic Ocean, Miss Sam was retrieved in overall good condition. 

On January 31, 1961, the first space chimp was launched. Ham, whose name was an acronym for Holloman Aero Med, went up on a Mercury Redstone rocket on a sub-orbital flight very similar to Alan Shepard's. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles from the recovery ship and experienced a total of 6.6 minutes of weightlessness during a 16.5-minute flight. A post-flight medical examination found Ham to be slightly fatigued and dehydrated. His mission paved the way for the successful launch of America's first human astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., on May 5, 1961. Ham lived at the Washington Zoo until September 25, 1980. He died in 1983, and his body is now at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The next primate launch was with Goliath, a one-and-a-half-pound squirrel monkey. He was launched in an Air Force Atlas E rocket on November 10, 1961. He died when the rocket was destroyed 35 seconds after launch.

The next of the space chimps was Enos. He orbited Earth on November 29, 1961, aboard the NASA Mercury-Atlas rocket. Originally he was supposed to orbit the Earth three times, but due to a malfunctioning thruster and other technical difficulties, flight controllers were forced to terminate Enos' flight after two orbits. Enos landed in the recovery area and was picked up 75 minutes after splashdown. He was found to be in good overall condition and both he and the Mercury spacecraft performed well. Enos died at Holloman Air Force Base 11 months after his flight.

From 1973 to 1996, the Soviet Union, later Russia, launched a series of life sciences satellites called Bion. These missions were under the Kosmos umbrella name and used for a variety of different satellites including spy satellites. The first Bion launch was Kosmos 605 launched on October 31, 1973. 

Later missions carried pairs of monkeys. Bion 6/Kosmos 1514 was launched December 14, 1983, and carried Abrek and Bion on a five-day flight. Bion 7/Kosmos 1667 was launched July 10, 1985 and carried the monkeys Verny ("Faithful") and Gordy ("Proud") on a seven-day flight. Bion 8/Kosmos 1887 was launched September 29, 1987, and carried the monkeys Yerosha ("Drowsy") and Dryoma ("Shaggy").

The age of primate testing ended with the Space Race, but today, animals still fly to space as part of experiments on board the International Space Station. They are usually mice or insects, and their progress in weightlessness is carefully charted by the astronauts working on the station. 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "Space Chimps and their Flight Histories." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Greene, Nick. (2020, August 27). Space Chimps and their Flight Histories. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "Space Chimps and their Flight Histories." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).