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Miss Baker, Huntsville’s space pioneer, launched 65 years ago today

One of our nation’s first astronauts, who later became a much-beloved resident of Huntsville, Alabama, was launched from Cape Canaveral on a historic space flight mission 65 years ago today.

On May 28, 1959, an 11-ounce squirrel monkey named Miss Baker flew 360 miles into space on a 16-minute, suborbital flight aboard a Huntsville-built Jupiter-C missile and returned safely to earth. 

Her flight companion, a 7-pound rhesus monkey named Miss Able, also survived the trip but died four days later during surgery to remove an electrode that had monitored her vital signs during the flight.

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Their successful launch and recovery would lead to astronaut Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space two years later.

Surviving the flight, during which she was weightless for nine minutes, earned Miss Baker a full-page, cover photo in Life Magazine. 

Originally housed at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Florida, Miss Baker and her husband, Big George, later moved to what is now the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where they resided for the rest of their lives.

A celebration was held at the museum on each anniversary of the flight, and Miss Baker was treated to her favorite foods, which included strawberry gelatin, bananas, and cottage cheese.

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Countless adults today carry fond childhood memories of seeing Miss Baker in her spacious, space-age enclosure at the museum, and children who wrote and sent her fan letters at the time were soon rewarded by receiving a “pawtographed” photo in the mail.

Miss Baker made appearances on 20 national television shows 

Following the death of Big George, Miss Baker was married to a second husband named Norman in an official wedding ceremony presided over by District Judge Dan McCoy. It was jokingly said that the ceremony was held because many felt it improper for the two primates to “live in sin” in a conservative, Bible Belt state like Alabama.

The tiny space pioneer, who made appearances on 20 national television shows during her life, passed away from kidney failure in 1984 at the age of 27, but she had already set a world record for the longest living squirrel monkey known to exist. The average life span of squirrel monkeys is 15-20 years.

She was buried with full honors outside the entrance doors of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and visitors continue to leave bananas on the monument that marks her grave today.

This story originally appeared in The Art of Alabama Politics, an outlet dedicated to the the wild, weird, and wonderful history of Alabama politics.

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