The Monkey in the Rocket (and a bit about Stephen Colbert)

monkey cover

Today’s vintage space book:

“The Monkey in the Rocket” written by Jean Bethell, illustrated by Sergio Leone, published by Wonder Books, 1962

The back story: This book a reminder that animals, not humans, were the first to go space. The Monkey in the Rocket closely resembles the real life story of the American space chimp “Ham” who was sent into space by NASA in 1961.

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Summary: The Monkey in the Rocket tells the story of two adorable space chimps–Sam and Bam–who live not in the jungle, but at Blue Sky Base where they are training to be the first monkey’s in space. Who will be chosen to go space?

What’s inside:

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After many tests conducted by the kindly Dr. Bob, Sam is chosen to go up in the rocket.

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He goes up…

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and comes down…

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safe and sound…

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Reality check: No doubt this book ignited the imagination of many children in the 1960’s. And it’s still a fun read. For the 21st century child, it gives a good history of the early days of space travel and shows the important (indeed crucial) role that animals played in the space race.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin recognized “the enormous debt we owe the space chimpanzees. They, and their descendants, have served us in so many ways–initially as substitute humans is space research. Now it is time to repay this debt by giving these veterans the peaceful and permanent retirement they deserve.” (source: Space Chimps)

Reflecting its age, the book paints an unrealistically rosy picture of the lives of space monkeys. Sadly, unlike Sam, many did not survive the trip. Even if they did survive, they suffered illness and other obstacles.

Every time I read this book, I wonder if it was written (in part) to sell the idea of sending monkeys to space: Can you say “propaganda” boys and girls?

And what does this have to do with American comedian Stephen Colbert? Take a look … does anyone else think he looks exactly like Dr. Bob? The resemblance is uncanny!

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Strange but true: The “COLBERT” is a treadmill used on the International Space Station, the only piece of NASA engineered equipment in space that is named after a living human being.




  1. Dear Lost and Found Books,

    I was looking forward to your blog on The Monkey in the Rocket – a very nice presentation! As you pointed out, this charming fairy tale is pure 1960’s propaganda designed to sell the magic and excitement of space to children.

    The need for animal experiments is a debate without end; each side presents compelling arguments. Without settling the debate, both sides would likely agree that the reality for the individual animals used on space flights and for space research does not resemble this happy little Ham story. Unfortunately, a test animal’s training and preparation for space flight, the flight itself, and the animal’s life after contributing to our space program tends to be a very miserable tale.

    The “real” Ham was a chimpanzee’s taken from the wild. When he flew off into space Ham endured a force of 17 g’s during take off; this terrible pressure made him disoriented. He was revived and resumed his tasks in flight when electric shocks were applied to the bottom of his feet. His space capsule’s re-entry was faster than anticipated, and he crashed down very hard into rough seas. He landed over 100 miles from where splash down was anticipated. While waiting for rescue, his capsule began to take on water, and it began to sink. When he was finally pulled out of the ocean, rescuers could hear Ham squealing inside the capsule. Ham became a bit deranged from the trauma of his flight. At his “hero’s” press conference, Ham was agitated, screamed and would not go near the Mercury capsule where photographers wanted him to pose for pictures.

    Ham’s remaining life was spent in the captivity.

    For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend Colin Burgess & Chris Dubbs terrific book, Animals in Space from Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle.

    60’s space is always a great topic – thank you so much for showing The Monkey in the Rocket!

    • Dear Elephant, Sad but true. Even as a child I had concerns about the monkeys in this book, and when I read it to my own daughter she felt the same way. Children are amazingly perceptive! And yet, the book does give us a good way to remember the sacrifice these animals made, and talk about some of the ethical issues with our children. I don’t go into details, but we have talked about whether a real monkey would be scared, sick, etc. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  2. This was the first book I owned back in 1962. My dad worked at McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas), which built the rendevous space capsules for the Mercury and Gemini Projects. Maybe that’s why my parents bought the book for me when I was seven years old. Still have it in my collection, too.

  3. Oddly htis book may have influenced me as no other. I loved this book. And I think I still have it!

  4. One of my favorite books when I was kid I I recall asking everyone to read the story. I am dyslexic and this book encouraged me to learn to read . It was the first book I read

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