Before humans went into space in the 1960s, several other animals were launched into space, including numerous other primates, so that scientists could investigate the biological effects of spaceflight. The United States launched flights containing primate passengers primarily between 1948 and 1961 with one flight in 1969 and one in 1985. France launched two monkey-carrying flights in 1967. The Soviet Union and Russia launched monkeys between 1983 and 1996. Most primates were anesthetized before lift-off.
Overall, thirty-two non-human primates flew in the space program; none flew more than once. Numerous backup primates also went through the programs but never flew. Monkeys and non-human apes from several species were used, including rhesus macaque, crab-eating macaque, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.
The first primate launched into high subspace, although not a space flight, was Albert, a rhesus macaque, who on June 11, 1948, rode a rocket flight to over 63 km (39 mi) in Earth's atmosphere on a V-2 rocket. Albert died of suffocation during the flight and may actually have died in the cramped space capsule before launch.
On June 14, 1949, Albert II survived a sub-orbital V-2 flight into space (but died on impact after a parachute failure) to become the first monkey, first primate, and first mammal in space. His flight reached 134 km (83 mi) – past the Kármán line of 100 km which designates the beginning of space.
On September 16, 1949, Albert III died below the Kármán line, at 35,000 feet (10.7 km), in an explosion of his V2. On December 8, Albert IV, the second mammal in space, flew on the last monkey V-2 flight and died on impact after another parachute failure after reaching 130.6 km. Alberts, I, II, and IV were rhesus macaques while Albert III was a crab-eating macaque.
Monkeys later flew on Aerobee rockets. On April 18, 1951, a monkey, possibly called Albert V, died due to parachute failure. Yorick, also called Albert VI, along with 11 mouse crewmates, reached 236,000 ft (72 km, 44.7 mi) and survived the landing, on September 20, 1951, the first monkey to do so (the dogs Dezik and Tsygan had survived a trip to space in July of that year), although he died two hours later. Two of the mice also died after recovery; all of the deaths were thought to be related to stress from overheating in the sealed capsule in the New Mexico sun while awaiting the recovery team. Albert VI's flight surpassed the 50-mile boundary the U.S. used for spaceflight but was below the international definition of space. Patricia and Mike, two cynomolgus monkeys, flew on May 21, 1952, and survived, but their flight was only to 26 kilometers.
On December 13, 1958, Gordo, also called Old Reliable, a squirrel monkey, survived being launched aboard Jupiter AM-13 by the US Army. After flying for over 1,500 miles and reaching a height of 310 miles (500 km) before returning to Earth, Gordo landed in the South Atlantic and was killed due to mechanical failure of the parachute recovery system in the rocket nose cone.
On May 28, 1959, aboard the JUPITER AM-18, Able, a rhesus macaque, and Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey from Peru, flew a successful mission. Able was born at the Ralph Mitchell Zoo in Independence, Kansas. They travelled in excess of 16,000 km/h, and withstood 38 g (373 m/s2). Able died June 1, 1959, while undergoing surgery to remove an infected medical electrode, from a reaction to the anesthesia. Baker became the first monkey to survive the stresses of spaceflight and the related medical procedures. Baker died November 29, 1984, at the age of 27 and is buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Able was preserved, and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Their names were taken from the 1943–1955 US military phonetic alphabet.
On December 4, 1959, from Wallops Island, Virginia, Sam, a rhesus macaque, flew on the Little Joe 2 in the Mercury program to 53 miles high. On January 21, 1960, Miss Sam, also a rhesus macaque, followed, on Little Joe 1B although her flight was only to 8 mi (13 km) in a test of emergency procedures.
Chimpanzees Ham and Enos also flew in the Mercury program, with Ham becoming the first great ape or Hominidae in space. The names "Sam" and "Ham" were acronyms. Sam was named in homage to the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the name "Ham" was taken from Holloman Aerospace Medicine at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Goliath, a squirrel monkey, died in the explosion of his Atlas rocket on November 10, 1961. A rhesus macaque called Scatback flew a sub-orbital flight on December 20, 1961, but was lost at sea after landing.
Bonny, a pig-tailed macaque, flew on Biosatellite 3, a mission which lasted from June 29 to July 8, 1969. This was the first multi-day monkey flight but came after longer human spaceflights were common. He died within a day of landing.
Spacelab 3 on the Space Shuttle flight STS-51-B featured two squirrel monkeys named No. 3165 and No. 384-80. The flight was from April 29 to May 6, 1985.
France launched a pig-tailed macaque named Martine on a Vesta rocket on March 7, 1967, and another named Pierette on March 13. These suborbital flights reached 243 km (151 mi) and 234 km (145 mi), respectively. Martine became the first monkey to survive more than a couple of hours after flying above the international definition of the edge of space. (Ham and Enos, launched earlier by the United States, were chimpanzees).
The Soviet /Russian space program used only rhesus macaques in its Bion satellite program in 1980s and 1990s. The names of the monkeys began with sequential letters of the Russian alphabet (А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ё, Ж, З...). The animals all survived their missions but for a single fatality in post-flight surgery, after which the program was cancelled.
On December 23, 1969, as part of the 'Operación Navidad' (Operation Christmas), Argentina launched Juan (a tufted capuchin, native to Argentina's Misiones Province) using a two-stage Rigel 04 rocket. It ascended perhaps up to 82 kilometers and then was recovered successfully. Other sources give 30, 60 or 72 kilometers. All of these are below the international definition of space (100 km). Later, on February 1, 1970, the experience was repeated with a female monkey of the same species using an X-1 Panther rocket. Although it reached a higher altitude than its predecessor, it was lost after the capsule's parachute failed.
The PRC spacecraft Shenzhou 2 launched on January 9, 2001. It is rumoured that inside the reentry module (precise information is lacking due to the secrecy surrounding China's space program) a monkey, dog, and rabbit rode aloft in a test of the spacecraft's life support systems. The SZ2 reentry module landed in Inner Mongolia on January 16. No images of the recovered capsule appeared in the press, leading to the widespread inference that the flight ended in failure. According to press reports citing an unnamed source, a parachute connection malfunction caused a hard landing.
On January 28, 2013, AFP and Sky News reported that Iran had sent a monkey in a "Pishgam" rocket to a height of 72 miles (116 km) and retrieved "shipment". Iranian media gave no details on the timing or location of the launch, while details that were reported raised questions about the claim. Pre-flight and post-flight photos clearly showed different monkeys. The confusion was due to the publishing of an archive photo from 2011 by the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA). According to Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer, "They just mixed that footage with the footage of the 2013 successful launch."
On December 14, 2013, AFP and BBC reported that Iran again sent a monkey to space and safely returned it. Rhesus macaque Aftab (2013.01.28) and Fargam (2013.12.14) were each launched separately into space and safely returned. Researchers continue to study the effects of the space trip on their offspring.
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