The earliest practical precursor to the human space flight program was Project Albert. It was a horrific failure, with nearly all its pilots unable to survive the ordeal. Of course, these pilots were monkeys. Still, their story — full of confiscated rockets, drugs, and desert skies raining body parts — is one of the most tragic tales of the early space program.
Towards the end of World War II, a group of German aviation experts found themselves in possession of a lot of rockets and not a lot of pleasant options. They had engineered the V-2 rocket, which had been used to vigorously bomb Britain. They were on the losing side of a war that had inflicted massive casualties on the USSR. Both armies were now closing in and the scientists didn't relish the prospect of being captured by either of them. And so they went looking for Americans. When they found them, they offered to lead the American military to whatever rocket parts they could offer in exchange for political considerations and transport to America.
They got the transport, and America got a lot of rockets. These aviation experts did various things with the V-2s, including accidentally bombing Mexico once, but one of the most exciting ideas they had was preliminary tests for sending humans into space. This was hard to do, since no one knew anything about the effects of space on physiology. It was entirely new territory. And so they started the project in 1948 with an ill-fated rhesus monkey named Albert.
On June 11th Albert went up on the first test, drugged slightly, but otherwise healthy. At least on the way up to the 63 kilometer high trip he was healthy. No one had a reliable way to monitor his vital signs, and so it fell to medical experts afterwards to discover that the dead monkey that scientists found at the end of the trial had suffocated during the flight, not in reaction to the altitude. A year later Albert II went up to 134 kilometers. This time the person examining the corpse was asked for time, not cause of death. The parachute to his rocket had failed to deploy.
Albert III went up in September. His rocket exploded at ten kilometers up. No one was consulted this time about either time or cause of death. Albert IV was snuffed in another parachute failure in 1949.
It's fair to say that the scientists were somewhat disillusioned with what the V-2s had to offer at that point, and so they switched to rockets made by Aerojet in the fifties. They kept the name Albert, though, and the next two Alberts inherited the luck of the first four. Yet another parachute failure claimed Albert V. It seemed that luck was changing when Albert VI landed alive and safe in 1951. Sadly, he landed rather off course. He waited for hours in the New Mexico sun in a sealed metal container until military teams found and recovered the rocket, but he died of stress and heat exhaustion two hours after the recovery.
At last the proto-space experts decided to switch the names as they had switched the rockets. Two monkeys named Patricia and Mike survived a flight in 1952. Their flight had also not gone as planned, and had only managed to climb a little over twenty kilometers. But, considering they were the first monkeys to make it out of a rocket comfortably alive, their flight was celebrated. It took another seven years - and no more monkeys named Albert - for any simians to actually make it to space and back alive. Still, let us give thanks for all those fallen Alberts, and wonder if NASA should institute some new naming requirement for their missions.
Top Image: US Navy
Via Packing for Mars.