May 25th, 1959, is a date that Commander John Guion (Retd.) will not forget in a hurry.
Despite a favorable forecast, the winds had turned nasty. It was not raining though and so visibility was not too bad. The skies remained overcast with a thick nimbus cloud cover, the ceiling just 2000 ft.
The waves were now over 30 feet high and every now and then, the USS Kiowa heaved up and remained teetering on top, its screws almost clear of the water, before she slammed down into the next trough, her bow disappearing under the waves for what seemed like an eternity, while a vertical wall of a wave, far higher than her superstructure, rose up behind her stern rails.
After what seemed like an eternity she emerged once again, the seas cascading over the 50 caliber machine guns that were bolted to the decks and the phosphorescent deluge finally washing down the sides back into the Atlantic. But Guion and his men were not worried that the vessel would break apart.
The 1200ton ocean-going tug had a 1-inch thick hull made from creep-resistant manganese steel, its plates welded by a special tungsten inert gas process. The whole craft could actually twist and bend with the waves if it had to. Ship building was now a long way from the days of the Titanic.
As the hours ticked by, the excruciating process kept repeating over and over – slam, shudder, plunge, woosh, slam, shudder, plunge, woosh and the tug battered its way at the top of its rated maximum speed of 16 knots (30kmph), through the Atlantic.
The drop zone was still 30 minutes ahead, around 150 kms north-east of Antigua in the West Indies, where the hardy tug had a date, with two young ladies. One was a Rhesus monkey named Miss Able and the other, much tinier, almost pocket sized, a squirrel monkey, Miss Baker – the world’s first two living creatures to return from space alive.
Miss Baker, hamming it in front of a scale model of the Jupiter-V2 craft she went to space in. She had to be cajoled into position for this photo shoot, so engrossed was she wolfing down peanuts and crackers. She died in 1984, at the age of 27. While she was alive, she received upto 150 letters a day, from young schoolchildren. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
The vessel reached the rendezvous coordinates on schedule and waited, its decks heaving perilously, spray hitting the plexi-glass of the bridge, momentarily blinding the men standing behind, making them flinch involuntarily with every splash. Heavy-duty windshield wipers worked incessantly, to clear the glass and restore visibility.
Then, as if by some divine intervention, the seas subsided and the vessel’s pitch and yaw settled to just around 10 degrees to the vertical. Even then, it was still quite windy and the immediate weather forecast said it would remain unstable for a while. Tonight there would be no chopper-winched recovery. Bringing aboard the nose cone of the Jupiter would have to be accomplished by zodiacs with frogmen and the 20 ton ship-board winch.
Suddenly a section of the thick cloud cover lit up in a flash and an object emerged approximately 500 yards to the port, suspended from three billowing parachutes. Despite the breaking provided by the chutes, it slammed into the sea, kicking up a towering wall of spray which soon subsided and the object settled, bobbing up and down in the swells.
As soon as the frogmen attached the winch cable to the eye-bolt on the side of the capsule, it lifted off the water and started swinging in dangerously wide arcs, once even slamming against the hull with a nasty crack. Cmdr. Guion hoped that the furry astronauts were adequately padded up.
Finally the nose cone was lowered onto the deck. Those days, the ceramic thermal tiles were not so efficient. The outside of the capsule appeared charred and disfigured. Here and there one could see large gaps where the tiles had dislodged and fallen off. In spite of all that, here it was, in one piece. This had to be nothing short of a miracle.
And now it was time to meet the girls. A technician connected the capsule’s power supply with an external cable and looked at his telemetry console and immediately his face broke into a wide grin. “They’re alive!” he screamed at the top of his voice and a loud cheer rose from the deck. The back cover was hurriedly opened and a Nasa engineer reached in and brought out Miss Baker first and then Miss Able.
While Able seemed a bit subdued, shaking hands with her minder a bit too formally, Baker jumped into her handler’s arms for a cuddle, chattering away in glee.
Deep inside the bowels of the Kiowa the following words went out over the teletype….. “Able/Baker perfect, no injuries or other difficulties….” The tug then turned around and headed back to its Guantanamo Bay base.
Last Sunday was May 25th and, in honor, I had a banana for breakfast.
Able, ready to go, an hour before flight. A week after landing, Able died under anesthetic as doctors attempted to remove an EEG electrode that had been implanted in her chest to study her heart-rate in flight. Animal deaths were common in the early stages of the US’s space program. ( Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)