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Monkeying Around with the Space Race - July 19, 2019

Q: This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, when America landed two astronauts on the moon. Before sending men into space, NASA sent animals. The first NASA monkeys to survive the flight into space were named Able and Baker, or... Miss Able and Miss Baker. Where did the rhesus monkey named Able live before blasting off into space?

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A: Monkey Island at Ralph Mitchell Zoo in Independence, Kansas

Though they were not the first animals launched into space, Able and Baker helped pave the way for human spaceflight by showing that animals could indeed survive the rigorous launch and return to Earth. They were launched into space on May 28, 1959. Their vital signs were monitored during the mission, giving scientists a better understanding of what stresses spaceflight puts on a living body. Able was born and raised at Monkey Island at the Ralph Mitchell Zoo in Independence, in southeast Kansas. (BTW, here's an interesting book about Independence, Kansas!)    

The entire flight lasted about 15 minutes. After the recovery of their capsule at sea, the monkeys were allowed to relax in an air-conditioned room aboard the vessel, then escorted to Washington, D.C. for a press conference.

Unfortunately, Miss Able died a few short days after the flight. She needed an operation to remove an infected medical electrode, and had an adverse reaction to the anesthetic. Miss Baker, however, survived another 25 years, living at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. For the rest of her life, she received more than 100 letters a day from children who read about her adventures in textbooks. Miss Baker’s contribution was far from forgotten at the time of her death, and at her funeral in 1984 the attendance was well over 300 people. (Read more about Able and Baker's flight.)

Able and Baker were preceded by a long line of unsuccessful attempts by the U.S. to launch primates into space. The first attempt was Albert, who flew to 39 miles on June 11, 1948 aboard a V2 rocket, but died of suffocation during the flight. Albert II actually made it into space (above 62 miles) on June 14, 1949, but died upon the impact of his re-entry flight. Primates were far from the first living things sent intentionally into space. That distinction belongs to a member of a different part of the animal kingdom: fruit flies. Fruit flies were sent into space, along with a sample of corn seeds, in 1947 to test the effects of radiation at high altitude.

Read more about this storyAnd see this neat article from Flatland - KCPT's digital magazine

Discover more Kansas Trivia in KPR's online archive!

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