If you know your space animals, then you're probably already familiar with Ham, the first chimp America ever launched into space. You also probably know Laika, the late, great Russian space dog and the first animal to orbit Earth.
But a pair of monkeys — a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker and a rhesus monkey named Miss Able — deserves just as much appreciation. They took great risks to advance our knowledge of space, even when it was incredibly uncomfortable.
Those two monkeys were the first American animals, and some of the first animals in general, ever to travel into space and make it back alive (they lost only to a couple of Russian dogs). And it involved an extremely awkward trip. Miss Baker was strapped to the top of a missile and sent into suborbital flight, and lived to enjoy a long life back on Earth.
Miss Baker wasn't just any monkey. She was a monkey with the right stuff.
Miss Baker's story is told in Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle. She was born in 1958 in a Peruvian jungle, where she was captured and brought to the United States.
Found in a Miami pet shop, Miss Baker competed against other monkey candidates who were winnowed, like real astronauts, to see which had the "right stuff" to go into space. The monkeys were tested for intelligence, tolerance of small capsules and electrodes, and general affability. Miss Baker passed, and not just because she was brave — the team working with her nicknamed her "TLC" because she was so affectionate.
Still, any monkey would have found the mission uncomfortable. The shoebox-size capsule was insulated with rubber and fiberglass, and Miss Baker was covered with sensors to record her vital signs as she went into space. On May 28, 1959, Mses. Baker and Able were launched into space on the Jupiter AM-18 mission. When they came back to Earth, they became the first monkeys to go to space and return alive.
Miss Able didn't survive the electrode removal process (the anesthesia was too much), but Miss Baker did. She lost an ounce during flight, but she quickly gained it back quickly thanks to a diet of peanuts, biscuits, fruit, and some milk. She was then rewarded with a comparatively large seven-foot cage, where scientists monitored her progress. For 10 years, the Navy cared for her in Pensacola, and she was even married to a male monkey named Big George, though they never had children.
In the 1970s, the couple moved to the Alabama Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where they enjoyed a large cage and happy captivity. In 1979, Big George died, but Miss Baker was not a widow for long. She remarried to a monkey named Norman, and they lived happily together in old age. She died of kidney failure in 1984 at age 27 (a very old age for a squirrel monkey).
She is buried in Alabama, where she has a stone marker that lists her many accomplishments. If you'd like to pay tribute, you may place a banana on the marker in her memory.