Fifty two years ago today, on January 21st 1960, A test of the mercury Launch Escape System (LES) took a little Rhesus monkey named Miss SAM 11.7 miles out to sea from the Virginia barrier island she was launched from. The LES is a rocket put on the tip of a bigger rocket; both the US Mercury and Apollo rockets were equipped with them. The LES fires and carries the capsule up and away from the main rocket. The LES, being mounted on top of the capsule, shoots its fiery exhaust gasses down onto the capsule. This must be a very scary ride indeed.
SAM was an acronym for the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
The test rocket Miss SAM rode in, the Little Joe 1B, consisted of just the LES and a capsule. The fact that the LES was able to carry Miss SAM to an apogee of 9.3 miles indicates how powerful the little LES rocket was.
If Miss SAM could have processed the information she would have been almost as scared by the safety record of the US monkeys in space program as that wild January ride. The US had been flinging monkeys into space for a dozen years. The first monkey, a Rhesus named Albert, suffocated during a V2 trip on June 11th 1948. Albert II died on impact, Albert III died in an explosion, and Albert IV died on impact, Albert V died when his parachute malfunctioned, Albert VI died as a result of heat stress while waiting in the capsule for the recovery team to find him. Changing the name did not help as Gordo was then killed due to a mechanical failure. The first monkeys to travel to space and survive were Able (a rhesus like Miss SAM) and Miss Baker (a squirrel monkey). Able died four days after his flight after being over-anesthetized for a surgery to remove one of his flight electrodes that had become infected.
The safety record was getting better. Miss Baker lived to 27 years of age (November 29th 1984). She was buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The year before Miss SAM’s flight the rhesus named SAM was launched to a 53 mile apogee, and survived. Miss SAM would also survive.