In 1948 the US Air Force strapped a nine pound monkey named Albert to a rocket in New Mexico. The operation was a complete failure and a lack of oxygen killed Albert in his capsule before the rocket ever breached the atmosphere, a fact that mattered little as the parachute system failed to deploy on return, incinerating Albert as well as the rocket in a fiery crash landing. Albert was the first space monkey but not the last, in a program that extended from his launch up until, wait, that can’t be right… until 1996? Why in gods name were we still launching monkeys into space in 1996?
Launching monkeys into space is as American as apple pie. The greatest achievements of United States astronauts, and victory in the space race itself, could have never been achieved without the efforts of multiple test monkeys who paved the way for their human counterparts. If you want to make an omelette, as the saying goes, you’ve got to kill some chimps.
After Albert became the primus primate to leave earth, NASA followed up the attempt with Albert 2. If the name was chosen out of a reluctance to get attached it proved prescient, as Albert 2 exploded in a ball of fire somewhere over the Nevada desert.
Undeterred by the monkey ghosts that haunted their dreams, NASA scientists continued to tinker with the rockets and make adjustments to the simian pilots gear until they found success. In 1959, Able and Miss Baker, two rhesus monkeys who had been lovingly cared for in preparation for their flight were fed their favorite dessert of strawberry gelatin and bananas then rocketed into space. Surprisingly, they returned alive and well, with Miss Baker particularly revered as an adorable little hero.
The success of Baker and Able emboldened NASA to send bigger and smarter monkeys into space – working up the evolutionary chain until it was safe for humans. The first and best known of these was Ham, whose name was an acronym of Howell Aerospace Medicine, but more accurately stood for Hard As a Motherfucker.
These were the monkey precursors to human flight, and their success and methodology bred into NASA a strong culture of space ape experiments. Astronauts are immensely rare and expensive, while apes are readily available and minimize risk. It’s inhumane, though understandable, that they be used as test subjects during a time when so much importance was placed on space exploration, though this still begs the question:
Why in gods name were we still launching monkeys into space in 1996?
In a word “science”, but in a more granular sense, the idea was to monitor the effects of microgravity on biological organisms in a way that might be harmful to humans (a fancy term for shooting monkeys into space and watching them float around). It’s perhaps not the loftiest goal, which is why one of the monkeys choked on its own vomit in terror and died, the whole idea of blasting non-consenting animals into space came into question. The joint space program of Russia, the United States, and France resolved to maybe give it a rest on space chimps after the incident. It also didn’t help that Aladdin and Babe had just come out in recent years, society reaching both the zenith of people caring about animals and enjoying monkey-antics.
Gravity and space simulators have also come a long way, and austerity has pared down most nations space programs to where there just isn’t a budget anymore for space chimps. These days the only state crazy enough to still use monkeys is Iran, who in 2013 launched a monkey into space, killed it, then tried to switch it with another monkey. Barring such attempts by eccentric/evil states the era of monkeys in space is seemingly now over, but they will always remain the first to reach beyond the trappings of earth, and if movies are to be believed, perhaps they will be the last as well.