Today in History: NASA Launches a Chimpanzee Into Space

Today in History: NASA Launches a Chimpanzee Into Space

M.C. Millman

On January 31, 1961, NASA launched a test flight with a chimpanzee on board, paving the way for the first American in space. 

The famous chimp was named Ham, after the acronym "Holloman Aero Medical." Ham wasn't always known by this name. The National Air and Space Museum reported that Ham was captured by trappers in the French Cameroons in West Africa in 1957 and called '#65.' He was then sold to the US Air Force in 1959. The Air Force sent Ham to the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he took part in training to become an 'astrochimp.'

NASA first wanted to test chimps in space to see if the American spacecraft system was ready for suborbital flight. The goal was to train chimps and have them perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission. If successful, the testing would allow scientists to prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry and test out the life-support systems at the same time. 

There were 40 other chimps trained in the space program along with Ham. The group of chimps was taught to pull levers in response to light and sound. 

As the tests continued, only certain chimps made the cut. Out of the six 'finalists,' Ham, at just three and a half years old, was selected as the astrochimp to ride into space in Mercury spacecraft #5.

Ham was strapped into a harness inside a pressurized capsule called a 'couch,' which would allow him to breathe if the cabin pressure in the spacecraft failed. He was then launched into space, boosted by a Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket. 

The flight lasted around 16.5 minutes and traveled at 5,800 miles per hour. There were 6.5 minutes of weightlessness where Ham performed the tasks he was trained to do. This provided the evidence needed to show that humans could also execute tasks during space travel. 

Due to 'technical problems,' the capsule landed further downrange than predicted, ending up in the Atlantic ocean. Ham was rescued safe and sound and was released from the capsule in good spirits. He achieved instant fame and was featured in many articles, on magazine covers, and in the news many times.

The organization, Save the Chimps wrote about how noteworthy Ham's flight was, saying, "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is often lost in all of the writings about Ham: he was a baby. If Ham had not been kidnapped and his mother killed, he still would have depended on his mother for survival. Humans are often considered more intelligent than chimpanzees, yet it is hard to imagine a human toddler performing as well as Ham in this challenging task. It speaks to Ham's character, intelligence, and bravery."

After his famous venture, Ham lived at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, until 1980. He was then transferred to the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, where he died in 1983. 

Around three months after Ham's famous flight, Alan Shepard became the first American launched into space.

photo credit: Flickr

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