“The issue here is monkey”


Gus Grissom: You’ve got it all wrong, the issue here ain’t pussy. The issue here is monkey.
John Glenn: What?
Gus Grissom: Us. We are the monkey.
Deke Slayton: What Gus is saying is that we’re missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they’re gonna send a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is saying is that what they’re trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees!
-The Right Stuff, 1983

Fifty years ago on this day, a multinational crew of astronauts flew a brief harrowing, historic rocket ride from Cape Canaveral. They were strapped into a Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and streaked at 10,000 mph – to an altitude of 360 miles. The crew was weightless for nine minutes, survived re-entry and were recovered 1700 miles downrange. No ticker tape parades for them – just some tasty bananas.

Able, an American rhesus monkey and Miss Baker, a Peruvian squirrel monkey, became the first mammals to survive a round-trip to space and back. They were by no means the first animals in space. The first living creatures of any kind to make it to space were some fruit flies launched on a captured V2 rocket from White Sands, New Mexico, to the edge of space (100 miles) in July 1946.

The first primates to go to space were named Albert – four of them in all flew on a series of V2 rocket launches in 1949.  But they all died when the parachutes failed to open during re-entry. They did survive the trip into space which was the object of the research.

The Soviets, of course, are well known for dispatching a series of dogs on one way trips to space – the most famous of them being Laika – a mostly Siberian Husky mutt who flew to space on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Laika was wired up to determine how she would fare in orbit – and she was fine until the air ran out. You see, the USSR did not build Sputnik 2 to survive re-entry. The craft eventually fell to Earth in April of 1958 and Laika became a space legend. She is enshrined in a statue at the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia. There is a good list of all the early animal space missions here.

Of course the animal flights created a lot of grist for critics of the Mercury 7 astronauts – as Tom Wolfe captured perfectly in The Right Stuff.  The man who first broke the sound barrier – the test pilot’s test pilot – Chuck Yeager trash-talked the first astronauts by telling them the Mercury capsule “doesn’t really require a pilot, and besides, you would have to sweep the monkey shit off the seat before you could sit down.” Ouch.

When the shuttle fades into history at the end of 2010, we will, in a sense, be right back to square one on this debate. Flying the shuttle – which is after all a $2 billion glider that handles like a falling piano – down to a gentle runway landing requires some no-shit piloting skills. The shuttle’s successor – Orion – will splash down in the ocean under parachutes. Do you really need the best test pilots in the world for that? Another reason I will miss the shuttle.

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