Neil Armstrong may have been the first man on the moon, but his famed trip into outer space would not have been possible without Ham the Astrochimp. The brave chimp’s suborbital journey paved the way for humankind’s foray into space, not only proving that living creatures could survive space travel, but that mental and physical functioning during space travel were possible.
Born in 1957 in Cameroon, Ham was ripped from his home by trappers and taken to the now-defunct Miami Rare Bird Farm in Florida. That’s where the United States Air Force purchased him in 1959 for $457. Ham was stationed in New Mexico at the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, where he would train for his first and only assignment.
The Space Race
Following World War II, the Cold War developed between the United States and the Soviet Union as the superpowers vied for global dominance. Rather than duking it out on the battlefield, the conflict was carried out through proxy wars, propaganda campaigns, trade embargos, psychological warfare, and even sports competitions.
The struggle seeped into the areas of science and technology as the Soviets and the Americans rushed to prove their political, military, and economic superiority. But as arms technology advanced and amassed, the fear of mutual nuclear annihilation drove the rivals’ sights to a new frontier: outer space. Whoever reached the cosmos first would represent not only their nation, but their national ideology as the best Earth had to offer.
Related: The Soviet-American Space Alliance
But just launching people up into space was too risky. How would the human body react to weightlessness? Were the extreme speeds and rapid acceleration of rocket flight survivable? Once a person reached space, was a return to Earth even possible? For answers, scientists turned to animal experimentation. Between them, the U.S. and the USSR launched numerous creatures into space: mice, rhesus monkeys, dogs, even fruit flies. A great many of the test subjects died, some were injured, few survived unscathed.
Finally, in 1957, the Soviet Union hit the jackpot with the successful launches of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, and Sputnik 2, which carried a stray mutt named Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth.
The United States, on the other hand, struggled to send monkeys into orbit, finally reaching success with Baker and Able, the first primates to survive a return trip to space. In the meantime, the USSR had already launched and landed dozens of dogs.
There was no denying that the Americans were lagging behind in the race to space. To catch up, their next move would have to be bigger and better than anything their opponent had done so far.
NASA Bets on Chimps
The goal was to put a man in space; an astronaut was expected to perform various tasks during the mission. But there was still no way of knowing whether motor tasks could even be performed in space—all the test subjects so far had simply been passengers along for the ride.
And while there was no doubt that living organisms could survive space travel, there was still no guarantee that humans could. NASA needed a test subject that could provide more accurate and relevant data before they could risk a manned mission.
Enter: the chimpanzee.
A fellow hominid, chimps are more closely related to humans than any other animal, sharing nearly 99% of our DNA. We have similar organ placement and skeletal structure, as well as nervous, circular, respiratory, and digestive systems. If a chimp could survive a round trip to space, it was extremely likely that a human could too.
Chimps are also exceptionally bright. Their brains are capable of reason, generalization, and abstract thinking. A chimp could be trained to perform physical tasks similar to those required of human astronauts.
So NASA turned to the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, selecting 40 chimps for use in the space program. One of them was Ham, known at the time as Number 65. It was felt that giving the animals names would make for bad publicity should the animals die during testing. Only after his safe landing would he be officially given the name Ham, widely believed to be an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.
The School for Space Chimps
Since the chimp’s trip to space would be a dry run for a future manned mission, the candidates would need to undergo training similar to that of human astronauts. The chimps underwent g-force training and microgravity simulation. They faced rocket sled launches, participated in isolation training and intelligence tests, and endured numerous medical checkups and monitoring.
In addition to testing the little-known physical and psychological side effects of space travel, the chimps would need to perform routine tasks during their flight so any effects on reaction time and motor functioning could be measured. To this end, the chimps were trained to sit at machines, pushing and pulling levers in response to sounds and flashing lights.
Pull the correct lever in the allotted five seconds and the chimp was rewarded with a delicious banana pellet and a sip of water to wash it down. Take too long or answer incorrectly and they’d receive an electric shock to the soles of their feet.
Even during training, Ham was a standout. “He was wonderful: he performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle,” Edward C. Dittmer, who oversaw the chimps’ training, would recall later in an interview for the book Freedom 7: The Historic Flight of Alan B. Shepard, Jr. “He was a well-tempered chimp.”
When the class of 40 chimps was whittled down to 18 and then six, Ham made the cut. He and the other finalists shipped out to Cape Canaveral, Florida for the last round of training.
Launching the MR-2
At dawn on the morning of January 31, 1961, five-year-old Ham ate a breakfast of baby cereal, condensed milk, and an egg, blissfully unaware that, by the end of the day, he would be a national hero. He was alert and in a good mood, and after passing a final physical exam and a few other tests, he was selected to make the flight.
Ham and his alternate (a female chimp later dubbed Minnie) were suited up in diapers, waterproof pants, and spacesuits. A van took them to the launching pad where, 90 minutes before the scheduled liftoff, Ham took an elevator up 83 feet to the top of the Redstone 2 rocket.
There, the 37-pound chimp was strapped into a pressurized fiberglass and aluminum capsule with a control system to regulate temperature and pressure as well as supply oxygen. The capsule was then sealed inside the Mercury spacecraft where Ham waited patiently, peering out the chamber’s plexiglass window.
At 11:55 a.m., after nearly 90 minutes of delays due to technical difficulties, the Redstone booster shot into the air and Ham was off.
A Bumpy Ride
Almost immediately, computers noted that the flight path angle was one degree higher than it should have been. And it continued to rise. A faulty fuel pump was injecting the engine with too much liquid oxygen, throwing off the Redstone’s trajectory and causing the rocket to over-thrust and accelerate faster than planned.
The premature depletion of liquid oxygen kicked off the abort sequence and the escape system fired. Ham’s spacecraft was jettisoned from the booster, putting a force of a whopping 18 Gs on the little chimp—seven more than anticipated and two more than the human astronauts experienced during their training.
Around the same time, computers picked up a drop in the spacecraft’s cabin pressure and oxygen supply. Luckily, the levels inside Ham’s capsule remained consistent. After the initial shock of lift-off, his heart rate and breathing returned to normal, and he was able to go about his tasks.
The malfunctions resulted in a speed 1,457 miles per hour greater than expected, a crest of 42 miles higher than charted, and 1.7 minutes of weightlessness longer than scheduled. Ham had endured more than had ever been expected of him, and after a journey of 16 minutes and 39 seconds, it was time for him to come home.
The changes in acceleration and altitude caused the spacecraft to overshoot its mark. Rescue crews spent three hours searching for the capsule as it bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean, 420 miles from Cape Canaveral.
Aboard the recovery ship, a wobbly and agitated Ham was pulled from his capsule. He was tired, dehydrated, and had sustained a bruise on his nose during reentry. But he had survived.
Soon Ham was a household name. People flocked to his new home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to see him. He received fan mail, which he often responded to with a finger-print signature. Documentaries were made about Ham the Astrochimp, and he was all over television and magazine covers.
Three months after Ham’s sub-orbital mission, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., a Mercury Seven astronaut, became the first American in space: a feat that could not have been accomplished had Ham not proven beyond a doubt that humans could survive and even work in space.
Ham the Astrochimp
Accounts differ as to Ham's wellbeing after his training and mission, and he leaves behind a complicated legacy. NASA has touted him as a brave chimp who, however unwittingly, made a contribution to the history of science with no lasting ill effects. Other sources, including prominent primatologist Jane Goodall, have expressed concern with how Ham was treated, and assert that the suborbital journey left him terrified.
After his historic journey, Ham lived at the National Zoo for 17 years before being transferred to a chimp colony at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro in 1980. There, he was reintroduced to other chimps for the first time since leaving Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.
While at Asheboro, Ham gained a family and found a mate, though he had no offspring of his own. One day in 1983, his keepers found him lying in his favorite spot in the sun. His head was resting on his chest and he wasn’t moving. He had died of a heart attack, aged 26. Ham’s body was laid to rest in front of the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico beneath a commemorative plaque.
“Alan Shepard was a hero, no doubt about that,” Ralph Morse told Life magazine in a 50th anniversary retrospective. A long-time photographer for Life, Morse was on hand for the historic landing to snap photos of the chimp. “But whenever people call Shepard the first American in space, I like to remind them of a chimpanzee who beat him to it.”