As I am writing this, there are six people in space, all aboard the International Space Station. While these missions are now routine, in the 1950s scientists weren’t certain that the human body could survive in a weightless environment. Years before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent Alan Shepard into space, American rockets carried monkeys beyond Earth’s gravitational pull. Some of them even became famous.
On May 28, 1959, a Jupiter rocket blasted off carrying a rhesus monkey named Miss Able and a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker. After a 16 minute flight (nine of them weightless), the monkeys’ capsule returned to Earth and the two were recovered in “perfect health,” the first primates to have survived such a journey. Miss Able died of an adverse reaction to anesthesia just days after the successful flight, but Miss Baker became a favorite of American schoolchildren over her 25 years of retirement.
One of the honors bestowed upon Miss Baker was a Medal of Honor and Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). At the time, the Society expressed support for “carefully controlled scientific” use of animal astronauts for the “mutual benefit of man and animals.” The ASPCA’s National President William Rockefeller presented the award on June 29, 1959. The text of the certificate reads:
To Baker, because this one-pound squirrel monkey, along with her simian companion Able, was one of two American pioneers to travel 300 miles into outer space, thus blazing the trail for human beings who will follow and widening the horizons of scientific knowledge, which will eventually benefit all of us who dwell on the earth, whether animals or humans.
This silent footage of Miss Baker’s award ceremony comes from a Department of Defense Filmed News Release. These films were provided to television and newsreel producers, who would then incorporate the footage into their news programming and films, complete with voiceover and snappy editing. (You can learn more about the DoD new releases from this blog post.)
Miss Baker lived at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Fla., until 1971. She then moved to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) in Huntsville, Ala., where she continued to be visited by many museumgoers and schoolchildren (including one of our own Archives Technicians). When she died in 1984 at the age of 27, Miss Baker was laid to rest on the grounds of the USSRC. You can still visit her gravesite today and leave a banana in tribute to her service.