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Blazing the Trail in Space

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The first successful American “astronaut” is on display at the Smithsonian in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition. It’s not Alan Shepard, but Able, a rhesus monkey.

Able

Able sometime before her flight at the U.S. Navy Aviation Medical School where she trained for her flight. (U.S. Army)

Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker were the first American animals to enter space and return safely. On May 28, 1959 at Cape Canaveral, Able was placed in the nose cone of Jupiter AM-18 secured by a contour cradle made of fiberglass with sponge rubber lining specifically built for her body. Included in the cradle were multiple electrodes used to collect information on Able’s reaction to noise, acceleration, deceleration, vibration, rotation, and weightlessness. The cradle was then placed in a capsule with a life support system that included oxygen, moisture and CO2 absorbers, and electrical heating and cooling systems to keep the monkey alive. Baker was placed her in own separate capsule in the nose cone.

Able

Able being secured in her specially designed contour cradle before launch. Able’s position in the cradle mimics how the first human astronauts would be seated. (NASA)

Able

Able seated in her cradle being placed inside the life support capsule before launch. (NASA)

Jupiter

Jupiter AM-18, the rocket that took Able and Baker into space, pre-launch.

Able and Baker’s mission lasted for approximately 16 minutes, nine of which they experienced weightlessness. The two monkeys traveled to an altitude of over 300 miles and 1,700 ground miles south of the launching point. After recovery by the naval ship USS Kiowa, the primate space travelers were reported as unhurt and in good spirits.

Able

Able being extracted from her contour cradle after the successful flight. (NASA)

Able

Able and Baker being shown off aboard the USS Kiowa after their flight. (U.S. Army)

After recovery, the two monkeys were flown to Washington, DC for a press conference, where they were treated like celebrities. They even appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine on June 15, 1959. Able was awarded a medal and Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Able at a Press Conference

The press conference held in Washington D.C. for the suddenly famous space monkeys. (U.S. Army)

Able was not the first choice for this mission. Another rhesus monkey had been extensively trained for the flight, but was replaced with Able only two weeks before the launch. The first candidate was born in India, and President Eisenhower determined that this might offend the Indian people who view rhesus monkeys as sacred animals. Therefore, American-born Able from Independence, Kansas was the new choice.

Able

Able undergoing a flight test to prepare her for her flight into space with Baker.

Able

Able, seated in her cradle, on top of her life support capsule on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

Unfortunately, Able died on the operating table at Armored Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) in Fort Knox  just four days after her space flight. She was having an Electroencephalography (EED) electrode removed, a routine procedure. An EED measures electrical activity of the brain. The incision site was a shallow half inch, but anesthesia was used to save Able from discomfort. While under the anesthesia, her heart abruptly stopped. Extensive measures were taken to save her, to no avail. On March 22, 1960, Able’s body was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.

Able’s space partner Baker, or Miss Baker as she has been known since her flight, lived out her days first at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida and then at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. On November 29, 1984, Miss Baker died of kidney failure at Auburn University, making her the oldest living squirrel monkey in captivity. Miss Baker’s grave can be seen at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center frequently with a banana or two on top.

Baker

Miss Baker sitting on a model of the rocket she and Able rode into space. (NASA)

Thanks to Able and Miss Baker, NASA and the U.S. military were assured that humans could survive in space. These two monkeys paved the way to human exploration in space.

Caroline Elpers was an intern in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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