- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
We didn’t know that Austin’s own Sam the Space Monkey, who took flight Dec. 4, 1959, was also a star of children’s books. Fans have not forgotten this little pioneer, the subject of the 1962 Wonder Books Easy Reader edition, “The Monkey in the Rocket.”
A few weeks ago, we profiled the Indian rhesus monkey, a native of Austin’s Balcones Research Center. He was sent into space to test the effects of suborbital flight. After observation at the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine, Sam retired to the San Antonio Zoo and died in 1978 at age 21.
Reader Erin T. Ulug loved our profile.
“When I was a little kid, one of my favorite books dealt with this story,” Uleg writes. “But I never realized it was based on the true story about a monkey from Austin. It’s funny how I remember that all so vividly after all these years: I guess the Sputnik Age had a very profound impact on kids in those days!”
Written by Jean Bethell with pictures by Sergio Leone, “The Monkey in the Rocket” introduces Sam and Bam who train to be the first in space. The pair look more like sock monkeys than real primates. They are overseen by a kindly medical researcher and a sterner military man.
“Up goes the rocket! UP! UP! UP! Way up into the sky. UP! UP! UP!” and so on. The researcher appears empathetic: “Doctor Bob looks up at the sky. Will he ever see Sam again?”
Then, the scene moves to a naval vessel during capsule retrieval: “OUT POPS SAM!” Sam whispers to Doctor Bob: “Sam says he likes to ride in rockets. And next time he’s going to the moon!”
In truth, anyone who has seen the archival pictures of the real Sam in his space suit and restraints can only imagine his terror before, during and after the flight. He certainly wasn’t hugging the researchers afterward.
“It turns out that a lot of the book is fantasy and probably included a lot of propaganda,” Ulug says. “But memorable and inspiring nonetheless!”