Kansan among first to go to space

03/22/2010 12:00 AM

03/22/2010 11:42 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

She was every bit a pioneer as the male astronauts who made the headlines.

She soared just as high — nearly 300 miles above the Earth traveling at speeds of 10,000 mph — at least two years before the men.

She is Able, one of the first American monkeys in space who survived her flight. Now, she is often a footnote in the history of the space age.

But the rhesus monkey was a native Kansan.

She was born at the Ralph Mitchell Zoo in Independence.

She was acquired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Florida and, at the age of 2, helped test equipment for the space program.

At the time, one of the theories held by scientists was that humans might not be able to survive long periods of weightlessness. Scientists turned to animals. In the space race between America and the Soviet Union, animals — dogs, monkeys and chimpanzees, even mice — were used to test the early flights. Known as the monkey flights, the U.S. used the animals in rocket launches mostly from 1948 through 1961. The first monkey launched with a rocket was named Albert, another rhesus monkey, who was launched into space on June 11, 1948. He died of suffocation. The next one, Albert II, survived the flight but died on impact. Another died in an explosion.

There were others.

But on May 28, 1959, Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker were launched on board the Jupiter AM-18.

They were launched in the nose cone, and according to NASA, carried to a 300-mile altitude.

They were among the first living creatures to successfully return to Earth after traveling in space.

Unfortunately, Able died four days later from the effects of anesthesia when technicians tried to remove electrode sensors from her heart.

Baker lived until 1984 and died at the age of 27. She is buried in Huntsville, Ala., on the grounds of the United States Space and Rocket Center.

Able was preserved and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

In the Museum, Able is shown strapped into the specially designed “couch” in which she flew into space.

The movie “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” has a character inspired by Able.

In this story’s footnote, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.

Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, Mercury Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American man in space, allowing Able to retain her title as not only one of the first mammals in space but the first Kansan in space.

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