If you know your space pioneers, then you’re probably familiar with Neil Armstrong, the first human to ever walk on the moon. You also probably know Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space.
But a pair of monkeys — a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker and a rhesus monkey named Miss Able — are much less known, but may have had just as much of an impact on the space race as any human being.
Long before the naval aviators Shepherd and Glenn stepped foot into Pensacola to begin their training, it was another pair of pioneers who would help pave the way for future space travel.
In the late-1950s, at the dawn of the U.S. space race, Naval Air Station Pensacola was home to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine, which was tasked with studying the effects of spaceflight on the human body.
In 1959, the school became involved in evaluating some of the first primates that would be launched into space ahead of the first human astronauts.
In preparation for the testing, twenty-five South American squirrel monkeys arrived in Pensacola. One of the female monkeys standing out as the ideal one, named Miss Baker, joined an American-born rhesus monkey evaluated by the Army.
Found in a Miami pet shop, Miss Baker was pitted against the other monkeys, all being tested for a myriad of characteristics that would later prove beneficial for human space travel, including intelligence, tolerance of small spaces and general affability.
On May 28, 1959, the two primates, each strapped into a canister that contained devices to monitor their vital signs, were placed in a capsule atop an Army Jupiter rocket positioned on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. At 2:39 AM the rocket roared off into space, carrying Miss Able and Miss Baker to an altitude of over 300 miles. Of the 16 minutes they were airborne, the two primates spent nine minutes experiencing weightlessness.
Upon landing, the two creatures were instant celebrities, with a color photograph of them featured on the cover of the June 15, 1959, issue of LIFE magazine. Tragically, two weeks before the magazine went to press, Miss Able died on the operating table as doctors were in the process of removing an electrode from beneath her skin.
As for Miss Baker, while she lost an ounce during flight, she quickly recovered. For the next decade the Navy cared for her in Pensacola, where visitors could view the space pioneer in her home at the research facility.
Mated to another primate in 1962, she lived in Pensacola until 1971, when she moved with her mate to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In 1979, her mate 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. Miss Baker died in 1984 at the age of 27 — the oldest squirrel monkey in the world at the time.
She is buried in Huntsville, Ala., 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.
View a gallery of Miss Baker and Miss Able:
View a video of Miss Baker receiving an award for space flight at NAS Pensacola: