[Jan. 23, 1960] Of Missiles and Monkeys (Little Joe 1-B and a Soviet ICBM)

It has been several weeks since either superpower has announced an orbital launch, but space news still manages to fill the front pages of my local newspaper:

One story that has been building for several days is the impending (and now historical) launch of a Soviet missile into the Pacific Ocean.  To the unitiated, such a feat seems hardly noteworthy—after all, the Pacific Ocean is quite literally the largest target on Earth. 

Take a closer look.  The Soviet ICBM actually struck within 1.24 miles of its target, which is a rather remarkable feat of guidance.  A nuclear bomb delivered within a mile radius of any point of Washington D.C. would surely do the job expected of it. 

Moreover, the uproar surrounding this flight has been riotous.  Ever since the Russians announced the mission, citizens of our fair democracy have been up in arms.  How dare the Communists violate the sacred neutrality of our oceans?

Well, the same way they violated the sacred neutrality of orbital space, and you’ll notice that the President was just as easygoing about Sputnik as he was about this latest launch; clever fellow, that Ike.  After all, if the Soviets open that can of worms, how can they protest when we follow suit?

In less contentious news, the last of the Little Joe test flights has had a successful flight with the adorable Miss Sam, a rhesus monkey, at the (dummy) controls.  It’s about time we saw equal representation in our “manned” space program!  For those who don’t know, Little Joe is a midget rocket that lofts a Mercury capsule several miles into the sky for a test of the emergency abort system, which is another rocket bolted to the spacecraft’s nose.  If the Mercury booster fails, the escape rocket will pull the capsule and pilot to safety—theoretically.  Anxiously witnessing the flight were two of the Mercury Seven astronauts: Shepard and Glenn (one of whom, it is rumored, may be the first American to ride the Mercury for real into space).

Happily, the thing seems to work!  Miss Sam flew to a height of nine miles and a maximum velocity of 2000 miles per hour before the escape rocket fired and jerked the Mercury away from the still blazing rocket.  This test was particularly important because it was done at “max q,” the instant of maximum booster acceleration.  If the system works under those conditions, it should work all the time.

Miss Sam was recovered by helicopter almost immediately upon her splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean, 8 and a half minutes after launch.  Less than an hour after leaving the ground, the intrepid monkey-naut was safely back on Wallops Island where she’d started from. 

This flight marked the last time a boilerplate Mercury will be tested.  The remaining two Little Joe flights will feature real production models off the McDonnell assembly line.  Thus, humanity gets one step closer to the stars.

See you in a few!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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