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After 50 Years, Space Monkeys Not Forgotten
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After 50 Years, Space Monkeys Not Forgotten

Space

After 50 Years, Space Monkeys Not Forgotten
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's remember a time when government money was flowing to the space program. In Huntsville, Alabama, there's an unusual grave stone. It reads: Miss Baker, squirrel monkey, first U.S. animal to fly in space and return alive. May 28th, 1959.

Ms. Baker actually had company on that flight, a monkey named Able. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on two famous monkeys who made a historic space voyage 50 years ago today.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Two years before the first person ever flew in space, news reports were already celebrating heroic space travelers.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: At Cape Canaveral, two tiny astronauts, monkeys Able and Baker, are readied for the first flight into outer space and safe return of earth life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The monkeys' safe return was anything but certain.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The rhesus monkey and the much smaller squirrel monkey are secured in separate capsules in the nose cone of a Jupiter missile.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Able and Baker were hardly the first animals to go for a rocket ride. Starting in 1947, the U.S. government began blasting creatures into space to see if they could survive. Chris Dubbs is coauthor of a book called "Animals in Space."

Mr. CHRIS DUBBS (Coauthor, "Animals in Space"): Fruit flies were the first living thing to go into space. And then they started sending monkeys - in 1948, the first attempt to send a monkey into space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The keyword there is attempt. Rockets exploded, parachutes failed, nose cones got lost at sea. Six monkeys all named Albert died, so did a monkey called Gordo. Meanwhile, the Soviets were sending dogs on suborbital flights. At least 30 came back alive. And in 1957, a Soviet dog named Laika became the first animal to orbit the planet, though she did not survive.

Mr. DUBBS: Americans were aware of this, and the space race was clearly on by the time that Able and Baker came on the scene.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of rocket engines)

Unidentified Man #2: Three hundred miles out of the space they traveled. Fifteen minutes and 1,700 ground miles later, the capsule if fished from the waters of the Caribbean.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Joseph Guion commanded a navy ship, USS Kiowa, that was sent to retrieve the monkeys. He says there were their fiery reentry lit up the sky.

Mr. JOSEPH GUION (Former U.S. Navy Commander, USS Kiowa): The nose cone arched down, almost like a shooting star, down toward the water. It just came down very rapidly, and boom, it was gone.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: At first, he thought the monkeys had sunk. But then a lookout spotted the nose cone bobbing in the water. Guion says as the military doctors opened it up and saw the monkeys were alive, they looked as happy as if they just delivered babies. He says Baker was incredibly tiny.

Mr. GUION: I was just floored to see how small her capsule was. It was about the size of a large thermos bottle. She was extremely easy to talk to and hold. And she was like a little doll. Able was just the opposite. You could not get near her.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Able and Baker had experienced about nine minutes of weightlessness. They were instant celebrities. The New York Times reported that at a press conference, quote, "the correspondents pushed each other and clambered over chairs to get closer." The monkeys made the cover of Life Magazine. Unfortunately, Able died just a few days later during a medical procedure to remove an electrode. Her stuffed body is on display at the Smithsonian. But Baker lived another 25 years, mostly at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Ed Buckbee is a former director of the center who remembers Baker well.

Mr. ED BUCKBEE (Former Director, U.S. Space and Rocket Center): She would get 100 to 150 letters a day from schoolchildren. So she was very prominent in the story of our early spaceflight ventures.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The first humans reached space in 1961, but the monkeys weren't forgotten. Buckbee says over 300 people attended Baker's funeral. And, he says, often when you walked past her grave, you'll see that someone has left her a banana.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: Now some of the news footage you heard in Nell's piece actually comes from a video that we have upon our Web site, npr.org. And I'm looking at it right now - old black and white footage. You can see every last detail as these monkeys were prepped for their space flight, and also their return, their rescue in the water. You can see them meeting the press after they got home. Yes, I said meeting the press. There are reporters there who appear to be trying to ask questions. So I'm looking at this video, and you can tell the monkeys had very different reactions when they got back to earth. Baker just wanted to get her hands on some food, and Able was much more chilled, like, you know, this was just another day at the office. I swear, I'm looking at a monkey, right now, after returning from space, yawning.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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