Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Ballad of Able and Baker

Fifty years ago today the United States managed for the first time to send monkeys into space and return them safely to the earth. We'd been trying to do this since 1947 but unfortunately the rockets kept exploding and the recovery parachutes refused to open. Meanwhile the Soviets had been successfully sending their plucky space dogs up all throughout the '50's. This just added to our ever-growing angst during the atomic age, but then the two heroic monkeys -- Able and Miss Baker -- cooly piloted their Jupiter rocket 300 miles into the void of space, proving that American animals could do it too.

The monkeys became instant celebrities, appearing on Life magazine and being interviewed on TV. Navy monkey Miss Baker, who became known as "the sweet one," contrasted winningly with her partner, Army monkey Able ("the angry one") as they faced the cameras. But the country was saddened 4 days later when Able died unexpectedly during an operation to remove an infected electrode.

Miss Baker carried on, although she never made another trip into space. As our senior space primate she lived to see the first ape in orbit (Enos, in 1961) and the first man on the Moon (Armstrong, in 1969). Eventually she retired to the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama where she lived quietly for many years in relative obscurity. Miss Baker always had a kind word for strangers who recognized her, and particularly enjoyed passing her wisdom on to the young.

Miss Baker passed away in 1984, loved by one and all. She is buried beneath a granite marker on the Rocket Center grounds.

Her doughty companion Able was stuffed and is on display at the Smithsonian in his original spacesuit.

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