A decade before the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space, White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico launched the first Aerobee rocket, a platform that would eventually carry animals. Lifting off with a cosmic-radiation payload on Nov. 24, 1947, the flight was not the spectacular sight for which engineers had hoped. The 25-foot long rocket only reached 24.7 miles after “a burst diaphragm … caused a tip-off at staging and sent it veering off course,” author Greg Kennedy wrote in “The Rockets and Missiles of White Sands Proving Ground 1945-1958.”
Two years later, on Dec. 2, an Aerobee launched from Holloman Air Force Base was far more impressive.
“Smoke and flame burst out of the base of the missile,” Maj. D.M. Brown wrote in the Alamogordo News. “A terrible earth-shaking roar broke the awful silence, increased to an earsplitting pitch. The missile vibrated on its foundation, then suddenly leaped skyward … and screamed into the stratosphere at a speed of 4300 feet per second.”
Fifteen minutes afterward the Aerobee parachuted to ground near Tularosa Peak, 20 miles from the launch site.
Aerobees set altitude records up to 158 miles. Notable missions include the fourth, on July 26, 1948, which Kennedy said took “a large number of high-quality aerial photographs of large areas of the earth’s surface.”
The first animal payload, the monkey Albert V, died on April 18, 1951 when the parachute failed. The purpose of using monkeys included recording the effects of flight acceleration on their physiology, which is similar to humans.
The first recovery of live animals, a Rhesus monkey and 11 mice, occurred on Sept. 20, 1951. Several hours passed before a crew located them, and while they were alive when found, the monkey and two mice subsequently died from heat.
Capuchin monkeys Pat and Mike, and two mice, survived a 26-mile high ride on May 21, 1952.
Five stratosphere-bound animals – three mice and two monkeys – returned safely aboard an Aerobee X-8 in 1953. Following the City of Alamogordo’s May 1954 Armed Forces Day parade, Holloman presented the community with the Aerobee. Soon after, the rocket was set atop the Chamber of Commerce sign.
The 100th Aerobee lifted off from Holloman on March 12, 1959. The last from the base was on June 21, 1959.
The museum is located at 3198 State Route 2001, Alamogordo. For more information call 575-437-2840 or toll free 1-877-333-6589. Museum hours are10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Michael Shinabery has been an educator since 2006 at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. In 2015 he flew two NASA SOFIA missions (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.