GHOST OF THE MONKEYNAUT
These are the hard facts: On December 13, 1958, a
navy-trained squirrel monkey named Gordo was
launched from Cape Canaveral in a Jupiter rocket.
Telemetry data—from a microphone taped to his
chest—suggest that Gordo survived the launch and his
weightless moments in space but died when his
parachute failed to open and the rocket’s nosecone sank
to the bottom of the Atlantic. The U.S. Army
abandoned the search for this missing hero after six
Then, in early 1959, reports began surfacing of a
small, monkey-like creature wrapped in a foil suit and a
sad little plastic helmet haunting the coast. He walked
the beach mournfully at night, tail dragging in the sand,
whimpers fading in and out with the ocean breeze. If
approached, he scampered up a palm tree and
disappeared into the night sky. One group of concerned
citizens in Satellite Beach seemed to have encircled him
until their flashlights all blinked out at once. At least
one man felt a cold breeze on his knee and the flick of a
What had they seen? Gordo or his ghost? Had
Gordo’s chutes deployed after all, lowering his little
craft into the Gulf Stream, where it bobbed and drifted
until it washed ashore on a quiet stretch of beach?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Life and death is of little
concern to a monkey who has stared down the empty
depths of the universe and fallen to earth without the
consolation of fame—or even so much as a pair of
warm arms to run to and hide.
They say that abandoned heroes do not go quietly.
Gordo had been trained using little rewards, fruit to pull
a lever, nuts to push a button, sweets to lie still for five
31 minutes and breathe slowly. He’d done what they’d
asked and been promised so much more than treats,
though he’d never wanted it. Now, when he’d given his
life to the program, the least they could do was pay
respect to his feat.
For several years, Gordo was spotted up and down
the Space Coast. Later reports hint at a growing
bitterness and desperation. No longer the whimpering,
abandoned little monkey, Gordo crept up on late-night
lovers and sank his teeth into their sandy calves. He
stared fiercely through the sliding doors of first-floor
condos and banged insistently on the glass, eyes aglow
with the accusatory intelligence of a creature who
knows too much.
“He seemed to want my attention,” reported one
frightened condo owner. “He pounded harder when I
The last recorded sighting was by a Cocoa Beach
motel owner in 1970 who described a tiny old
spaceman on the beach at night. Wires that had once
connected Gordo to the scientists back home now
splayed from his shiny suit, the microphone to record
the beats of his tiny heart monitored by no one. He
slouched up the beach toward the Saturn V rocket
sitting that night on the Cape Canaveral launch pad.
One likes to think Gordo stowed away and found a
quiet glory in his second and last visit to space. One
likes to think he abandoned his bitter quest for
attention, fame being small consolation for a monkey
who never wished to climb higher than a tree.
Except, there’s one more hard fact to his story: the
rocket on the launch pad that night was Apollo 13.
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