April 11, 2013

This Monkey Needs No Uncle

This is Able, the NASA monkey who, with pal Baker, became the first mammals to be successfully launched into and returned from outer space.  Photo (and related article) found here.
Able is a rhesus monkey, and was chosen from a group of 8 select monkeys who had undergone many months of training and testing through NASA's early space program.  The monkeys were being considered for a special project - to be the first to successfully launch a living animal into space and return it to Earth in tact.  Monkeys were the chosen species for their biological similarities to humans, and of these, Able was chosen to make the journey.  Why?  Because it was believed she could remain calm during flight.

The monkeys (Able and her travel mate, Baker) weren't just strapped into the capsule, they were fitted into full-body restraints which prevented nearly all movement.  In these housings, they were sent up in a windowless capsule.  According to Mysteries at the Museum, they were launched atop a 60 foot rocket to a maximum height of 300 miles above the Earth.  On the way up, Able's body - covered with sensors providing biological feedback to NASA's crew on land - showed signs of distress as she attempted to withstand excessive g-forces.  Once they reached their peak, both astroprimates returned to normal and healthy vital stats.

However, this reprieve was temporary, for after only a few minutes in orbit, the nosecone of the capsule which carried these hapless travelers separated from the rest of the vessel and plummeted toward Earth.  We are told the monkeys experienced forces equal to 30 - 40 Gs on their descent, which ended only when their nosecone literally crashed into the ocean.  A US ship immediately moved in to retrieve the capsule and its passengers, and the crew members were the ones who would have to open the capsule and discover their fates.

Able and Baker were alive and well, still secure in their restrictive carriers.

Yes, dear readers, the first mammals, the first primates, to survive a trip to outer space AND the return to Earth were women.

These women were chosen for their intelligence, strength, and most of all, ability to remain calm and level-headed under extreme conditions.  They survived physical environments that quite literally would crush most of us, not to mention the psychological terror of being immobilized in an enclosed space - one I highly doubt was lit or at least not well - that was propelled by unfathomable force, momentarily floated, then plummeted until it crashed and bounced about in the waves.  Women who emerged just as stable as they were when they left the planet.

Perhaps there's a deeper biological story behind the fortitude we see in modern women than we consider.  We are creatures designed with the physical ability to grow a human being within our own bodies, to eventually convey this being to the outside world, and even to then provide all nourishment and care necessary to sustain this life, all on our own power.  Furthermore, we see other women go through these experiences and still accept the tasks for ourselves...in fact, many of us feel a deep need to do it even if we are terrified.  That is, we withstand severe psychological challenges to do what we know must be done.

Of course, I'm sure there were male monkeys in the group of animals trained for space flight, and that they may have been nearly as qualified as Able and Baker for this trip.  It's perfectly reasonable that the ladies exhibited traits that were inherent to them as individuals rather than them as females, just as some women are more adept at certain skills than others in our society.  Surely, Able and Baker were selected for their unique personalities and abilities and not for their gender.  But am I surprised that the first living Earth creatures to survive these trials were women?

Not in the least.

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