Sam the rhesus monkey had already experienced one hell of a ride to the edge of space when he splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean—but his adventure didn’t end there. Although the dry, original accounts of Sam’s 1959 flight offer scant detail about the journey, mainly confirming that NASA’s new Mercury capsule kept him alive, Bob Thompson tells a more colorful story.
Now in his early 90s, Thompson can still dominate a room with his commanding voice. And on a recent January morning, standing in his kitchen, Thompson did just that as he recounted the landing of Sam nearly six decades ago. In doing so, he offered a parable for NASA as it considers rescue operations for its Orion spacecraft at sea.
Back in December 1959, NASA was 18 months away from Alan Shepard’s flight into space. The agency still had rockets and spacecraft to test. And scientists knew almost nothing about the effect of weightlessness on humans or how to keep them alive. More immediately, they wondered about the safety of a new launch-abort system, needed to get the crew capsule quickly away from the rocket in case of an accident. Rockets blew up a lot back then.
So when NASA’s young engineers at Langley Research Center in Virginia began testing their new Mercury capsule in flight, they wanted to see whether the accelerations experienced during the abort of a Mercury flight shortly after launch were survivable. Enter Sam, an eight-pound rhesus monkey.
It was up to Thompson to recover Sam, or what remained of him, after the test flight. An original member of NASA’s Space Task Group, Thompson had been brought in a year earlier to head up landing and recovery operations for NASA and coordinate with the US Navy. Rough seas had scuttled attempts to launch Sam earlier in the week. But finally, by December 4, the seas had calmed—a little.
“I was out there on a destroyer, and there were 20-foot seas,” Thompson recalled. “The destroyer captain was an ex-submarine guy. I stayed on the bridge, and I set him on a course with the wind and the seas that favored recovery. And I said, ‘Stay steady as you go and don’t stop.’ Then I left the bridge and went down to the deck to help them get the capsule out of the water.”