Atlas Obscura

The Monkey Astronaut Who Helped Pave the Way for Manned Spaceflight

The monkey in question, pictured in 1959.

Photo: Public domain

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When Peruvian-born, U.S.-raised astronaut Miss Baker died in 1984 at the age of 27, she had been to space once and married twice. Her grave, located at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, sits alongside those of her first husband, George, and her second husband, Norman. Atop Miss Baker’s headstone sits a pile of bananas, each one placed by an admirer. They make a fitting tribute to a fallen pioneer: Like any other squirrel monkey, Miss Baker loved bananas.

In 1959 NASA went shopping for astronauts at a pet store in Miami. At that point, the U.S. had been sending monkeys to space for a decade: In 1949, rhesus monkey Albert II became the first primate in space, reaching a height of 82 miles aboard a V2 rocket. After this momentous flight, rockets were launched containing Alberts III through VI, also known as Yorick. Alas, there was one big problem: None of these animal astronauts survived the trips.

Suffocation and mechanical malfunctions were the main space-monkey killers. On Dec. 13, 1958, for example, a squirrel monkey named Gordo rode a Jupiter AM-13 rocket toward the stars from Cape Canaveral. Dressed in a tiny space suit and hooked up to monitoring equipment, Gordo had a problem-free, 15-minute flight, over half of which he spent weightless. Upon re-entry, however, the parachute necessary to provide a soft landing failed to deploy. Gordo died on splashdown. The nose cone in which he rode was never recovered from the murky depths of the Atlantic.

With the death of Gordo and his simian predecessors in mind, NASA took a more-is-more approach during that Miami shopping trip in 1959. Twenty-six young squirrel monkeys were acquired, and, after rigorous testing and training back at the labs, 2-year-old, 1-pound Miss Baker was judged the most hardy of the lot. Her ability to tolerate confined spaces and electrodes with grace and patience made her a perfect candidate for a whole new era of space travel: one in which astronauts returned alive.

On May 28, 1959, Miss Baker was dressed in a jacket and helmet, strapped into a cylindrical capsule not much bigger than her body, and blasted into space aboard a Jupiter rocket from Cape Canaveral. Accompanying her on the journey was Miss Able, a 7-pound rhesus monkey who had also been selected for the mission. The 16-minute flight went well—the monkeys’ vital signs remained normal, and the capsule landed safely in the ocean near Puerto Rico. Here’s a jaunty Universal Studios newsreel from June 1, 1959, which ends with the monkey duo “physically unharmed and in jolly good spirits,” enjoying their newfound status as “pathfinders for the space men of tomorrow”:

Four days after the triumphant landing, however, Miss Able was undergoing surgery to remove subcutaneous electrodes when she had a severe reaction to the anesthetic. The little space monkey died on the operating table, giving Miss Baker the bittersweet title of sole survivor.

The sassy squirrel monkey went on to live a long and cushy life. After a publicity blitz that included an appearance on the cover of Life magazine, Miss Baker retired to the Naval Air Training Station in Pensacola, where she was set up with a custom-built home—and a husband. Big George, a fellow Peruvian squirrel monkey, became officially wedded to Miss Baker during a naval ceremony in 1962. For the next eight years, the couple lived at the training station in, according to a New York Times article, “a home swank enough for a honeymoon cottage, though not much larger than a couple of telephone booths.”

Miss Baker in her capsule.

Photo: NASA/Public domain

Big George and Miss Baker moved to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1971. There they lived a laidback existence, being fed cottage cheese and visited by excited school children. In 1979, Big George died. A mere three months later, Miss Baker was on to her second monkey husband: Alabama’s Rome News-Tribune reported on the wedding between “Miss Baker, the space monkey, and Norman, who has never been anywhere to speak of.” Despite the disparity in career accomplishments, it seemed an amiable match.

Miss Baker’s achievement-packed life ended due to renal failure on Nov. 29, 1984, at which point she held the record for the oldest living squirrel monkey. (Members of the species usually hang around for 15 to 20 years—Miss Baker was a ripe old 27.) The banana-topped headstone marking her Huntsville grave distinguishes her as the “first U.S. animal to fly in space and return alive.”

Want more monkeys in space suits? And a few dogs, too? Visit Atlas Obscura for Allison Meier and Michelle Enemark’s illustrated guide to animal astronauts.

Miss Baker’s grave in Huntsville.

Photo: James E. Scarborough/Creative Commons