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Wayback Wednesday: Meet Sam, the First Austinite in Space


Fifty-five years ago, on December 4th, 1959, the U.S. launched the Mercury spacecraft which contained a scared little rhesus monkey.

The silent news footage above chronicles the pre-launch preparations of that monkey, Sam, the third primate in space, who was born in 1957 at the Austin animal colony of the now-defunct Brooks Air Force Base -- his name was an acronym representing Brooks' School of Aviation and Medicine. Sam's flight was a test of the Mercury's launch escape system, a precursor to space capsule systems used in manned flight. On that fateful December morning in 1959, Sam went up on a small Little Joe rocket, soared 51 miles into the air and experienced three minutes of weightlessness before plummeting back down to earth. Unlike many early animal astronauts, Sam was retrieved safely several hours later by a U.S. Navy destroyer after landing in the Atlantic Ocean in a floating drum.

While the footage of his treatment above may seem cruel, comparatively, the Russian space program hadn't quite figured out how to secure animals' re-entry after launches at this time. Sam, however, went on to live a long life.

He spent a few post-launch years in Austin until 1971, when he was transferred from Austin to the San Antonio Zoo. Sam died in 1982 at the age of 25.

This footage is from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, a massive depository of archival footage of Texas history which is entirely available online.

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