One Small Step...the story of the space chimps

One Small Step

Early History



Roll Call



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Johnson Space Center

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Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care

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Early History

In the 1950s, the United States was rapidly advancing toward the ultimate goal of manned space travel. To achieve this goal officials used primates, rather then humans, as subjects in g-force, gravitational and acceleration effects testing.

a V-2 rocket The use of primates as pre-manned space flight test subjects began in 1948 with the launch of a V-2 rocket carrying a Rhesus monkey named Albert I. Fitted with electro-cardiogram sensors to measure heart rate and a lever to measure respiratory function, Albert I was injected with a muscle relaxant and placed inside the nose of the V-2 rocket. The mission - to test not only heart and respiration effects under launch conditions, but also to test and refine a parachute recovery system.

Apparently just prior to launch, an Air Force wag wrote on one of the V-2's fins, "alas poor Yorick, I knew him well," revealing the expected fate of Albert I.

The launch of the V-2 rocket was successful, but the parachute system did not deploy and the rocket was crushed upon impact. Telemetered data for Albert I indicated no heart or respiratory functions during the launch and investigators concluded that Albert I died before liftoff. The investigators did note that had Albert I lived through the launch, he would have died upon impact. This test was followed by dozens of other tests all with similar results. Needless to say, without an operational parachute system, the possibility of human rocket flight was unthinkable.

Finally on September 20, 1951 the Air Force launched and retrieved a biological payload - the monkey Yorick and eleven mice. Unfortunately, Yorick died from heat exhaustion just two hours after his flight. While Air Force personnel deemed Yorick's flight a success, failure to keep the payload alive post flight meant the Air Force had to continue primate testing until they achieved a successful launch and recovery.

In May of 1952, the Air Force successfully launched, retrieved, and kept alive two rhesus monkeys, Pat and Mike, and eleven mice. The launch provided the Air Force with its first evidence that primates (and mice) could not only survive a rocket launch, but could survive the after effects of a launch and recovery.

Take me to a list of early primate flights...

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