On June 14, 1949, a d.r.u gged-up rhesus monkey named Albert II was buckled into a Nazi-designed missile at an airfield in White Sands, New Mexico. Called the Blossom V-2 rocket, the vehicle was a beefier version of the we.ap.on Hitler had deployed only five years previously, in bl.itz.es against Allied cities like London, Antwerp, and Liège.
But on that Tuesday 68 years ago, the rocket—swiftly adopted by the United States, along with its German developers—served a radically different purpose. After a successful lift-off, the Blossom V-2 propelled Albert II to an altitude of 83 miles (134 kilometers), making him the first primate ever to visit outer space, and thus paving the way for human spaceflight. Albert II was preceded by Albert, whose capsule only made it to a height of 39 miles (63km) on June 11, 1948. Albert did not last long, and possibly suf.foc.ated even before his capsule left the ground. Space officially begins at 100 km above the surface of the Earth, and this height is called the Karman Line. After Albert II made it into space, a number of other monkeys, named Albert III, IV, and V all flew aboard rockets, though none survived the flight, either d.y.in.g on i.mp.act or during the flight.
Sadly, Albert II paid for this milestone with his life. About three minutes after the launch, as the rocket reached its zenith, the monkey’s capsule separated from the booster for the trip back to Earth. Everything was proceeding smoothly until the parachutes were released, and failed to billow out to slow Albert II’s descent. About six minutes after he had been blasted from Earth, the six-pound monkey was k i.lled upon his return, leaving 10-foot-wide crater to mark the impact.
His d.is.tre.ss throughout this tumultuous ordeal is preserved in electrocardiographic data captured by sensors attached to his furry body. David Simons, the Air Force project officer for V-2 animal stud.i. es, reported that Albert II’s heart rate was “clearly d.is.tu.rb.ed” by disorienting g-force shifts, according to Animals in Space by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs.
“This is the first record made of an animal’s response to spaceflight,” Simons said in 2006, as quoted by Burgess and Dubbs. “I think it deserves recognition as such—several years ahead of the Russians.” (The Soviet space program’s first animal astronauts were Dezik and Tsygan, stray dogs who reached suborbital space in 1951.)
As hinted by his regnal number, Albert II was not the first monkey to be m ar.ty.red in early spaceflight experiments. Almost exactly a year before, on June 11, 1948, the original Albert, a nine-pound rhesus monkey, had been launched 39 miles above New Mexico on a Blossom V-2. The flight was short of the Kármán line (62 miles above Earth), which is considered the gateway to outer space, so it wasn’t considered a true spaceflight.
This i.l l-fated Albert dynasty of space monkeys continued with the launch of Albert III on September 16, 1949. He d.i. ed when his V-2 ex.pl.oded early in its ascent. Albert IV, like Albert II, surpassed the Kármán line and reached an altitude of 79 miles, becoming the second primate in outer space. Alas, also like Albert II, he was k i.lled on impact when his parachutes malfunctioned. Yet another parachute failure doomed Albert V, who rode an Aerobee rocket in place of a V-2, in April 1951.
Sensors attached to Albert I suggest that he suf.foc.ated during the flight, or perhaps even during the launchpad countdown, before he even bl.as.ted off. Either way, he was d/e.a d before his capsule’s descent, and if he hadn’t been, he would have been k i.lled when it crashed into the ground, since the parachutes didn’t work on this test run either.
The first monkeys to survive the flight into space were two monkeys named Able and Miss Baker. They flew to a height of 360 miles (580 km) on May 28, 1959 aboard a Jupiter rocket. Their capsule landed 1700 miles (2736 km) downrange from the Eastern Space Missile Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and they were successfully recovered.
All of the monkeys were an.est.h.et.ized during their missions, and implants and sensors – as well as cameras on later missions – allowed scientists to study the effects of weightlessness and radiation at high altitudes on living creatures. Without the sa.cri.fi.ce of these animals, there would have been much loss of human life during the space program.
As space historians like Amy Shira Teitel have noted, the early Albert monkeys are often forgotten “unsung heroes” of the American space program, overshadowed by the starpower of Miss Baker, or Mercury Program astro-chimpanzees Ham and Enos. But the early sacrifices made by these six pioneering Alberts formed the bedrock of crewed spaceflight in the United States, and gave their human relatives the boost they needed to leave primate footprints on the Moon.