This story originally appeared on the Further Findings blog.
The 50th anniversary of the first primate shot into space by Americans was this week.
On Jan. 31, 1961, Ham, a chimpanzee, was launched 160 miles above the Earth. The chimp became something of a celebrity after a photo spread in Life magazine immortalized his flight.
The University of Texas at Austin didn’t have Ham, but it had Sam and Miss Sam, Rhesus monkeys who took up-and-down flights in December 1959 (Sam) and January 1960 (Miss Sam).
The monkeys were trained at the Balcones Research Center, now the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, in North Austin, under the care of Wade Lynn Brown, a psychology professor and director of the Primate Center.
Here’s what The Alcalde, the alumni magazine, had to say in its March 1960 issue about one of the university’s contributions to the space program:
“Miss Sam, a little girl monkey from Balcones Research Center, on January 21 became the second University monkey to survive a rocket flight in the one-ton capsule which one day will carry man into outer space.
“Before reaching a height of 48,900 feet, Miss Sam’s space capsule was separated from a Little Joe booster rocket by an escape device designed to free future astronauts if anything went wrong during the launching. The capsule parachuted to the sea 12 miles from the point of firing at Wallops Island, Va.
“Just the month before a University-reared boy monkey named Sam had soared 55 miles into the sky. The two monkeys are still ‘adolescents,’ but later they will be matched for mating to study possible genetic changes caused by radiation.
“The three University men present at the launching of both monkeys were Dr. Wade Lynn Brown, professor of experimental psychology and head of training the monkeys; Dr. Hugh Blodgett, professor psychology, Captain Donald Gisler, Air Force veterinarian stationed at Balcones.”
Psychology professors and Air Force veterinarians were not the only ones to enjoy the presence of monkeys at Balcones. A few years ago, Further Findings talked to Earnest Gloyna, a professor emeritus in the Cockrell School of Engineering and former engineering dean, about the history of Balcones.
After working late one night Gloyna got in his car to head home. He looked out to see a Rhesus monkey on the hood. A bit startled but not surprised, Gloyna started the car and the monkey scampered away.
“They’d get out and run all over the place,” Gloyna said. “We’d find their fingerprints on the glassware in our labs.”