May 28, 1959, 40 miles North of Antigua— Two small monkeys splash down in the nose cone of a Jupiter missile. The rocket had traveled 1,700 miles in 15 minutes, and with their successful recovery by the U.S. Navy tug Kiowa, the two “monkeynauts”—nicknamed Able and Baker—became the first animals to return alive from a spaceflight.
The suborbital mission was an important test of the effects of space exposure. The test animals’ physiological reactions were monitored and radioed back to the ground crew. Just one month before, the newly created NASA had publicly revealed the seven would-be astronauts who became the public face of Project Mercury.
At the time, American and Soviet officials were meeting in Geneva to discuss Nikita Khrushchev’s deadline for the Western powers to leave West Berlin. When Brig. Gen. J.A. Barclay radioed Kiowa’s crew to congratulate them on the successful recovery of Able and Baker, he pointedly referred to it as “a free-world first.” The Soviets—who in 1957 were the first to put an animal into orbit, though the dog, Laika, didn’t survive the trip—would soon catch up. In July they successfully recovered two dogs and a rabbit from a similar experiment.
While the flight itself did not harm Able or Baker, they still had the press to contend with. Baker’s reaction to the newsreel cameras and klieg lights crammed into their Washington, D.C., news conference on May 30 led Dr. Donald E. Stulken of the Navy Aviation Medicine Branch to describe her as “the biggest damn ham in the world.” Just a few days later, however, Able would die from a reaction to the anesthesia used while her electrodes were being removed. Baker was unharmed by a similar procedure, and went into retirement at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., until her death in 1984. She is buried on the grounds.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.