The short suborbital career of Austin native Sam the Space Monkey

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018 Lifestyle
In 1959, Austin resident Sam the Space Monkey was among the first travelers from Earth. Contributed by U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine via Jim Johnson

Little-known fact: One of the earliest space travelers from Earth was an Austin native.

Sam the Space Monkey was born in 1957 at the Balcones Research Center near what is now the intersection of U.S. 183 and MoPac. He was an Indian rhesus and part of a long-term, secret program of behavioral and biological research started by the University of Texas in 1951. Sam was picked from 15 candidates who lived at the Austin colony to test the effects of space on a primate and help predict what weightlessness, radiation and other conditions would do to the human body.

According to NASA, Sam was launched on Dec. 4, 1959, from Wallops Island, Va., in a cylindrical capsule tucked inside a Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket. One minute into flight, traveling at a speed of 3,685 miles per hour, the capsule left the launch vehicle. After flying for about 12 minutes at an altitude of 55 miles, the spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, where Sam was rescued.

His tiny, improvised life support system had worked sufficiently well in suborbital flight, and he was returned to Austin before being transferred to San Antonio for further evaluation.

According to a 2017 story by Richard A. Marini published in the San Antonio Express-News, Sam then underwent 11 years of medical scrutiny by researchers at the School of Aerospace Medicine — formerly the School of Aviation Medicine — at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. He retired to a quiet life at the San Antonio Zoo.

“Sam died Sept. 19, 1978, at 21, several years short of the expected rhesus monkey lifespan,” the Express-News reports. “Even after death, Sam served the cause. A necropsy performed at Brooks found no space-related abnormalities, only that Sam had signs of old age and arthritis.”

We know about his time in Austin because Jim Johnson, who later worked with Austin medical pioneer Dr. Charles Pelphrey for decades at Clinical Pathological Laboratories, was one of the researchers at the former magnesium plant that eventually became known as the Pickle Research Center. The red brick buildings that housed his radiobiology outfit are now the part of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.

“Sam was a nervous monkey,” Johnson admits. “You never wanted to get near him. He’d grab you.”

Research on live animals was — and is — an extremely controversial subject. The approximately 900 primates who lived at the UT facility before it closed in 1961 were subjected to all sorts of drastic conditions, including fatal doses of radiation. And nervous Sam did not elect to take his space ride two years before the first American, Alan Shepard, dared to do so.

“The military did whatever they wanted to,” Johnson explains. “They experimented on rabbits, chickens, dogs, cats. Many times it ended in death for the animal. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals didn’t exist back then. And very few people even knew that the monkeys were there, much less that they were part of the space program.”

Space Age by accident

Back in the mid-1950s, Johnson served in the Army. At age 18, he attended guided missile school with the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Little did he know that, during the next few years, almost all his assignments would involve Space Age research.

“I hated the damn thing,” he says about guided missile school while relaxing at the lunchroom of Bullock Texas State History Museum, where he rounded out his career as a guide. “I didn’t do well at it. I was called before an academic board and they said, ‘You can go back and repeat classes or you can do something else.’ I said that I wanted to go to another school.”

There was an opening at a lab in San Antonio.

“I didn’t know where the hell San Antonio was,” Johnson says. “It thought it was in Houston. I left Pennsylvania by train on New Year’s Eve 1955. It took me 48 hours to reach San Antonio. When I left it was below zero with ice and in Texas it was 82 degrees and there was music and people speaking Spanish. I thought, ‘How could this be?’”

After his Army gig and a civilian break, he signed up for the Air Force and worked at a pre-space-flight research lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

“I was paid $50 a month to ride a centrifuge gondola at different speeds,” he says. “I could go as high as seven Gs without an anti-G suit for as long as two hours.”

On the same base, the Air Force was also screening the first astronauts for the Mercury program. Never a flier, Johnson wasn’t a candidate. Instead, he was sent next to an advanced lab in Montgomery, Ala., then back to San Antonio to the School of Aviation Medicine, where scientists were devising a test for cholesterol levels.

That second San Antonio tour led to the Austin radiobiology unit — which tested the effects of radiation on animals — and Sam’s monkey colony.

“Originally, the primates were used by UT psychologists for behavioral studies,” Johnson says. “They attempted to train them to respond to different stimulus, to eat or to pull levers.”

It was not, however, all repetitive research. Sometimes, the lab crew regrouped at a beer joint on Burnet Road.

“We would say that we were going to do some research and would go to Sonny’s Tavern instead to shoot pool, eat hamburgers and drink beer for a couple of hours,” Johnson says. “I loved Austin, married, had kids here. I didn’t leave the program until it disbanded in 1961.”

Life with monkeys

Sam’s official name was 11X, which was tattooed on his chest, but he was nicknamed Sam, an acronym for the School of Aviation Medicine.

He was not the first animal in space. As early as 1946, fruit flies were launched to high altitudes from Alamogordo, N.M. Later suborbital flights of V2 rockets identified the need for animal life support systems in space. During the early 1950s, scientists studied the effects of high G-forces on mice and monkeys. Meanwhile, flies, mice, hamsters, cats, dogs and rhesus monkeys made trips in high-altitude balloons for as long as 28 hours.

Gordo, a squirrel monkey, took a Jupiter rocket up in 1958. Abel, a rhesus monkey, and Baker, a squirrel monkey, followed in tests of muscle performance and behavioral training in early 1959.

But Sam gained fame because he and a female rhesus, Miss Sam, made paired flights in late 1959 and early 1960 to much press attention. They were wired up in special suits so researchers could monitor the effect of suborbital flight on their hearts and central nervous systems.

The 2017 Express-News story pointed the way to a 1960 Parade magazine article, “My Trip to Outer Space.” In it, Sam relates his experiences to crack reporter Jack Anderson.

“I may as well confess I was a reluctant hero and put up a struggle before I was strapped down,” Sam says in the mock “as-told-to” story. “For a frisky monkey, there is no harder work than holding still. … I stole a last lingering look at the setting sun before the (nose cone) door clicked shut. … The acceleration force (during liftoff), 12 times the pull of gravity, thrust me back into my foam cushion until I felt like a tattoo.”

According to Johnson, scientists and engineers designed a Biopack capsule for Sam that weighed no more than 50 pounds and an EKG monitor that came in at 4 pounds. The Biopack contained oxygen tanks, regulators and carbon dioxide scrubbers. (The Express-News story reports instead that the Biopack capsule weighed 100 pounds.)

“There were no computers,” Johnson recalls. “Everything was biotubes and radio tubes. We were in the process of miniaturization. For Sam’s chair, they brought in German machinists who had worked on the V2 rockets. For six months, they couldn’t come up with a thing. Then a General Electric guy came in with a chair that weighed 4 ounces.”

The 2017 Express-News article explains in detail the quest to invent a protective spacesuit for Sam: “Radiobiologist and physiologist H.L. ‘Lou’ Bitter went home for lunch one day and told his wife Edna that his team needed something that was both heat resistant and had straps to keep the monkey restrained. Did she have any ideas?”

In a 2004 Express-News interview, reporter Jeanie Tavitas-Williams wrote, “Eyeballing her ironing board, Edna … stripped off the silver padded cover, making two panels. After cutting out a small hole for the monkey’s head in one panel, Bitter fashioned ties out of the remaining material to hold the panels together.”

It took her 30 minutes to make the “Hoover apron” spacesuit prototype.

Austin’s monkey colony moved to San Antonio in 1961 and continued to be controversial. But that wasn’t the only reason Sam’s species was less likely to become experimental subjects.

“India said no more monkeys,” Johnson says. “After that, monkeys born here needed their own birth certificates.”