May 28, 2009
Fifty years ago today, the monkeys Able and Baker were placed inside the nose cone of a missile and launched to an altitude of 360 miles, on a suborbital flight that lasted just 16 minutes.
They weren’t the first creatures sent into space (that honor goes to fruit flies, in 1947), nor even the first primates. In 1951, another monkey named Yorick, launched from New Mexico, was the first to survive a suborbital jaunt (two Russian dogs, Dezik and Tsygan, had made a similar trip a few weeks earlier).
But Able and Baker, whose launch came shortly after NASA introduced the first Mercury astronauts, became famous. Half a century later, Able, who is preserved in the National Air and Space Museum, is starring in a Hollywood blockbuster and even has his own online game.
Most animals-in-space stories, like the saga of Laika the dog, end badly. One of my favorites, though, is the tale of two Russian tortoises (unnamed?) who, along with some meal worms and fruit fly eggs, traveled to the moon onboard the Zond 5 capsule in September 1968. Three months before the Apollo 8 astronauts, they rounded the lunar far side and returned to Earth safe and sound. Tortoises are fairly intelligent creatures, and long-lived. I wonder what happened to them. I like to imagine they’re sitting in some reptile retirement home in Moscow today, shaking their heads and asking each other, “Man, do you believe we did that?”