Photos show historic moments of animals and humans flying to space

Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos are making headlines in their suborbital space shots. Two monkeys beat them to it 62 years ago.

By Michael Greshko
Published 20 Jul 2021, 14:03 BST
The squirrel monkey Baker, often referred to as “Miss Baker,” clings to a model of the Jupiter missile that launched her and a rhesus monkey named Able into space on May 28, 1959. Baker lived until 1984.
Photograph by NASA

Before Bezos and Branson, there were Baker and Able.

In the early morning hours of May 28, 1959, a Jupiter missile launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, sending Baker and Able—two small monkeys—hurtling across the sky like a shooting star. Over the next 16 minutes, Baker, an 11-ounce squirrel monkey from Peru, and Able, a rhesus monkey born in Independence, Kansas, flew 1,700 miles and reached an altitude of 360 miles above Earth’s surface, higher than the Hubble Space Telescope orbits today.

The snug housing that secured Baker during her spaceflight sat within the nose cone of a Jupiter missile. After their May 1959 launch, Baker and her fellow passenger Able were recovered unharmed in the waters off Florida.
Photograph by NASA

After several minutes of weightlessness, the monkeys fell back to Earth in the missile’s nose cone, with Baker snug in a canister not much bigger than a large Thermos. The pair experienced forces 38 times stronger than Earth’s gravity during the descent. When they splashed down in the waters off Florida, Baker and Able made history. For more than a decade, the United States had been trying to send monkeys into space and return them safely, but all had either died in flight or within two hours of landing. Baker and Able, however, came back alive and well—the first primates to survive a trip to space.

Dubbed "Muttnik" in the U.S. press, a Soviet dog named Laika rode Sputnik 2 into space on November 3, 1957, becoming the first living creature in orbit. During and after the flight, Soviet officials claimed that Laika had survived for several days. However, she likely died hours after launch from overheating.
Photograph by Sovfoto, Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Able died in a medical procedure days later, but Baker lived until 1984, when she was buried at the U.S. Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville, Alabama. People leave bananas at her grave to this day.

Before he commanded Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong was a test pilot for the ultimate experimental aircraft: the X-15 rocket plane. A joint project of the U.S. military, NASA, and private industry, the X-15 pushed the boundaries of flight beyond six times the speed of sound. Eight X-15 pilots flew the craft more than 50 miles above Earth’s surface, the U.S. boundary of space. Armstrong, however, isn’t one of them.
Photograph by NASA

Now, nearly 600 people have ventured more than 50 miles above Earth’s surface—what the U.S. considers the boundary for space—and human spaceflight is entering a new phase. Flights beyond Earth are becoming cheaper and more frequent, and private enterprises are aiming to send more people to space than ever before.

What does the future hold for human journeys beyond Earth’s atmosphere? How often will future generations fly to orbit and beyond? How far will explorers travel?

To get a sense of how space exploration got here, and where it may be going, National Geographic looked back through more than six decades’ worth of spaceflight images, highlighting historic moments in humans’ forays into the inky void.   


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