But there was another American in space that month. One who has been almost forgotten by history.
Bonny, the 14-pound pigtail monkey, was launched into space on June 28, 1969, on a Delta rocket far smaller than the mighty Saturn V that took Neil Armstrong and his crew to the Moon.
While his three human colleagues were to make their historic soft landing on the Moon, Bonny’s lonely mission in Biosatellite 3 was designed to test the limits of human endurance in space.
He was due to remain in Earth’s orbit for 30 days while “sensors painlessly implanted in the monkey’s brain and heart and other body parts will see how weightlessness affects the animal’s mental, emotional and physiological process,” United Press International reported.
“We are astonished that there seems to be more concern for the animal than our astronauts”
Don Zylstra, NASA
Bonny was given simple tasks to perform, and he would be rewarded with extra food pellets if he carried them off successfully.
The mission was, it was reported, “expected to yield more information on how prolonged spaceflight affects life than all America’s manned space flights put together.”
The American press delighted in reporting updates on the progress of the “astromonk.”
“Nobody can make a monkey out of a U.S. astronaut named Bonny, because he’s already one,” chuckled the Orlando Sentinel on July 2, 1969.
But Bonny’s solo mission soon turned sour. Eight days after launch, NASA reported that Bonny was “just not trying.”
“We know he’s alert and in good condition because of the stream of information being radioed back from the sensors on his body,” a spokesman said, but the little Thai-born monkey became increasingly listless, losing interest in the little games NASA had created for him, and his body temperature began to dip worryingly.
Anxious that the astromonk’s condition was worsening, NASA aborted the planned 30 day mission after just nine days.
Bonny’s capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, an the monkey was recovered and flown to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, where he was placed into intensive care by vets.
But after an initially optimistic report from NASA, the monkey died suddenly within days of returning to Earth. NASA Dr. W. Roth Adey said: “There was no specific evidence of the heart or brain malfunction which can point to the problem,” but it’s thought that the Biosatellite 3 capsule’s hearing was insufficiently efficient to keep the little monkey warm enough.
Bonny was hugely popular among the American public at the time, and there was an enormous reaction to his death. “We have had close to 1,000 letters and some nasty telephone calls,” said Don Zylstra, a public affairs officer for NASA.
“We are conscious of this concern. However, we are astonished that there seems to be more concern for the animal than our astronauts.”
Less than a week later, however, Apollo 11 set off on its successful mission to the Sea of Tranquillity in an enormous scientific, technological, and propaganda triumph for the United States.
Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took that one small step into history, and little Bonny ends up as little more than a footnote – the fourth American in space in July 1969.