Who were the Space Monkeys?

The Space Age was an era of unprecedented technological development. In addition to developing the rockets and modules needed to put astronauts into space, considerable resources were also dedicated towards testing the effects spaceflight would have on the human body. In order to do this, test subjects needed to be selected that were physiologically similar enough to human beings.

For NASA, the Russians, and many space programs that have followed, the choice was to send simians (aka. monkeys) into space. While space missions would rely other animals to test the effects spaceflight would have on living organisms (such as dogs, guinea pigs, and even insects), monkeys were the most-widely used since they are more closely related to humans.


In the late 1940s, both NASA and the Soviet Space Program were working diligently to try and develop space launch capability. However, a going concern at the time was the risks posed by crewed spaceflight. At the time, the effects of weightlessness on the human body were unknown, and whether or not a human could even survive exposure was the subject of much scientific debate.

American Space Monkeys:

Russian Space Monkeys:

Other Space Agencies:

Although men have gone to space, they were not the first ones there. Scientists have sent a number of different animals up into space including monkeys. Both Russia and America sent monkeys into space. This is because scientists wanted to determine what the biological effects of space travel were before they sent humans up. While Russia only used rhesus monkeys, the US used many different species including rhesus monkeys, squirrel monkeys, cynomolgus monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees. Even France sent up two monkeys into space during the 1960’s. These animals were both recovered alive.

Many of the monkeys sent up into space died either on impact or in space. The US sent four monkeys into space named Albert, all of which died. The first monkey that actually passed the Karman line and made it into space was Albert II. He was sent up in 1949 and died on impact.

Gordo, who was also known as Old Reliable, was sent into space in 1958. A squirrel monkey, he was chosen because of the similarity of the species to the human body. Gordo was lost on impact and neither him nor the shuttle was recovered; however, scientists were heartened by the mission because they believed it helped prove that humans could survive in space. The first monkeys to survive space were Able and Miss Baker who were sent up in 1959.

The Russians sent dogs up into space in addition to monkeys, which is why they did not send nearly as many monkeys into space as America did. Thus the first monkey that they actually sent into space was not until 1983. The monkeys that the Russians sent into space were named according to the letters of the alphabet. One of these monkeys – Dryoma – who went to space in 1987 – was later given to Fidel Castro. The last monkeys the Russians sent up into space were Lapik and Multik whe went up in 1997. Both of them survived the mission, but Multik had a heart attack a day after the flight during medical tests.

One of the most famous monkeys ever sent into space was Ham the Chimp. He was trained to operate the controls of the spaceship becoming the first animal to not just be a passenger. Ham was recovered safe after his capsule crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists were able to determine that astronauts would then be able to operate instruments in space and Alan Shepard went into space several months after Ham.

We have written many interesting articles about space monkeys and animals sent into space here at Universe Today. Here’s Russia to send monkey to Mars, Who was the First Monkey to go into Space?, 50th Anniversary of Historic Space Monkey Flight, What Animals have been to Space?, Who was the First Animal to go into Space?, Who was the First Dog to go into Space?

For more information, check out animals in space and monkeys in space fifty years later.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on spacesuits.