For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)
Research into how biological payloads would fare in spaceflight began in 1946. The United States had recovered a series of V2 rockets (along with the scientists who built them) and used them to launch samples from the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. At this point, the country was without a space agency — NASA wasn’t established until 1958 — so the research was done jointly by the USAF, US Navy Research Laboratory (NRL), and Harvard University scientists under the direction of J. P. Henry.
The first launches carried seeds, some ordinary and some specially developed strains, to see if radiation at altitudes up to 84 miles would affect the plants they spawned.
The first animals were launched in 1947. On February 20, the NRL and Henry’s team from Harvard launched fruit flies on a V-2. They were recovered alive, making them the first animals to have survived a flight into space. They reached a peak altitude of 67.7 miles, higher than the 50 mile cutoff where the atmosphere is sufficiently thin that space begins. On March 7, another group of fruit flies was launched, joined by corn and rye seeds, to 99.5 miles. Again, the flies survived their flight into space. (Right, a V-2 rocket launch.)
The fruit flies had better luck than rodents and primates. Henry headed a series of flights to determine how these animals would fare in spaceflight. On June 11, 1948, an anesthetized monkey known as “Albert I” was launched to just 38.5 miles but died when his parachute failed. On June 14, 1949, another anesthetized monkey, “Albert II,” was launched 83.2 miles and also died when his parachute failed. On September 19, a third monkey was launched just over 6.5 miles when his rocket exploded and he was killed. December 8 saw another failed mission, though Henry managed to gather electrocardiogram data on the monkey during launch.
In 1950, Henry added mice. A single mouse was launched on October 31 of that year, and while it didn’t survive Henry did capture images of its behaviour when placed in a weightless environment.
In 1951, Henry and his fellow research scientists switched to Aerobee suborbital sounding rockets for biological launches. On April 18, two anesthetized monkeys and several mice were launched 38 miles and all perished when, again, the parachute failed. On September 20, the team had a “long-awaited breakthrough in parachute recovery.” One anesthetized monkey and 11 mice were recovered from a 44 mile altitude; the monkey died two hours after recovery but the mice survived. They are, however incorrectly, recorded by the US Navy as “the first known living creatures to survive actual spaceflight conditions.” Success with primates came a year later on May 21, 1952, when two anesthetized monkeys named Pat and Mike survived a 38.5 mile high flight. (Left, an Aerobee launch. Credit: N.M. Museum of Space History)
Biomedical test flight with rockets stopped after this last flight in 1952 when the US store of available V2s and Aerobee rockets was exhausted. The USAF and the Navy resumed testing with weather balloons. Not until after NASA’s establishment did biomedical testing with rockets resume. On December 13, 1958, an anesthetized squirrel monkey was recovered from a 209 mile altitude. It had been launched on a USAF Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles, a member of the von Braun family of rockets that preceded the Saturn family.
The 209 mile apogee is significantly more impressive than the 40 mile flights of previous monkeys, but the near 100 mile flight of fruit flies was the first definitive proof that animals could survive spaceflight.