How it all began…
The true story of Albert the world’s first primate space tourist
The story starts in World War II when Nazi Germany successfully used their V2 rockets to bombard England. The V2 was the world’s first long range ballistic missile and the first artificial object to fly into space (i.e. above 100 km).
As the war came to a close the United States made plans to take control of German technology. To that end, Operation Paperclip was established and a special military unit was created. The unit was tasked with rounding up German rocket scientists along with acquiring German V2 rockets, equipment, spare parts, and technical documentation. All of that material and the German scientists were shipped back to the United States, where the Americans began using the German rockets for research into new weapons and space exploration.
As American space research began in earnest, scientists quickly came to realize how much they had to learn about the challenges associated with space flight, in particular they were not sure if humans could survive in a zero gravity environment. They decided the best way to answer that question would be to launch an animal into space and recover it alive. Consequently the United States, as part of Project Hermes, decided to send four rhesus monkeys into space on modified V2 rockets to collect data. The monkeys were all to be launched from the White Sands Proving Grounds, a new military test range located in New Mexico that was established in 1946.
The monkeys were, unimaginatively, named Albert I, Albert II, Albert III and Albert IV. Their role in the experimental launches was to be a passenger. They did not know it at the time, but they were to be the world’s first primate space tourists (albeit involuntarily).
One by one, each Albert was scheduled, between 1948 and 1949, to be launched atop a V2 rocket which had been heavily modified for the experiments.
One by one, each Albert was instrumented, strapped securely into their seat, placed inside the small space at the top of the rocket (where the warhead would have been located during World War II)… at which point the technician probably smiled at Albert and said something like “Good luck little buddy!” before sealing Albert into the experimental vehicle.
One by one, each Albert was launched into space.…
Albert I’s attempt to reach space was not successful and unfortunately he died of suffocation due to the cramped capsule.
Albert II was successful in reaching over 100 km in height and became the first primate in space. Unfortunately he died on landing (impact) because the parachute failed.
Albert III’s attempt to reach space was not successful and unfortunately he died when the rocket exploded.
Albert IV was successful in reaching space but unfortunately he died on impact when the parachute failed (again).
Albert II and IV both experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, but because they had no windows to look out of, they were unable to experience a breathtaking view of the blackness of space, the curvature of the earth, or the beauty of earth visible from high altitude. Unfortunately both monkeys were certainly the first to confirm the Alien movie tagline “In space no one can hear you scream”.
Luckily for the scientists they were able to receive telemetry which confirmed both Albert II and IV had survived the period of weightlessness and were alive up to the point that they impacted the earth.
So ends the story of the world’s first primate space tourists – it is not a particularly happy story, but sometimes being the first comes at a high cost.
Subsequent to those flights, more monkeys and apes were sent into space to collect additional experimental data which paved the way for human space flight.
Scientists and engineers eventually solved the unfortunate parachute problem.
Today commercial space tourism flight operators do not use monkeys or apes. They have been supplanted by wealthy humans who eagerly pay for the privilege of being among the first to fly into space on an experimental vehicle (*). A fact for which today’s lower primates can thank their lucky stars having already “been there, done that” more than half a century before them.
* Note that only SpaceX and Soyuz are certified for human spaceflight.
Dennis Tito the world’s first higher primate space tourist
On April 28, 2001 Dennis Tito became the world’s first higher primate space tourist. Dennis Tito is a wealthy American entrepreneur who paid $20 million ($32 million in FY21) to travel to space. Tito flew to space on a Soyuz spacecraft and spent seven days in the International Space Station orbiting the earth.
“The pencils started floating in the air, and I could see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. I was euphoric. I mean, it was the greatest moment of my life, to achieve a life objective, and I knew then that nothing could ever beat this.” – Dennis Tito