On this day 60 years ago, “Ham” became the first chimpanzee to be launched into outer space on the Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket. The historic flight took place on Jan. 31, 1961, but Ham’s journey to space was years in the making.
The fascinating story of Ham begins in Africa, specifically in Cameroon where the chimp was born around 1957. Animal trappers captured Ham and transferred him to the Miami Rare Bird Farm in Florida. The United States Air Force later purchased Ham and took him to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, NM in July 1959.
As part of Project Mercury, 40 chimpanzee flight candidates underwent space training evaluations. Ham made the initial cut, which reduced the candidates to 18, and then another that narrowed the chimps down to six. Ham, otherwise known as No. 65, received pre-flight training to complete basic, timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds.
His handlers taught him to push levers within five seconds of seeing flashing blue lights. If Ham successfully pushed the lever, he earned a banana pellet. In contrast, if he failed to react, he received a light shock to the bottom of his feet. In addition, they trained the chimps to get used to long periods of confinement in a chair in preparation for space flight.
After 18 months of training, officials selected Ham as the first chimpanzee who would test the safety of space flight. Additionally, officials wanted to test if chimpanzees, which share genetic similarities to humans, had slower reaction times in outer space.
Ham the Chimp’s Flight to Outer Space
On Jan. 31, 1961, after waiting hours on the launch pad, Ham (short for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center) was ready to be launched into outer space. His handlers strapped him into a container called a “couch” onboard the rocket in Cape Canaveral, FL.
The launch, with Ham in tow, was a success all things considered. He traveled to outer space at approximate speeds of 5,800 mph and flew 157 miles above the Earth. The chimp’s vitals were closely monitored by NASA techs on the ground during the suborbital flight that lasted only 16 minutes. Ham correctly performed his tasks while in space, which proved that human astronauts could perform basic physical tasks in space, only slightly slower.
Ham’s space flight supposedly went higher and faster than NASA officials expected. His space capsule also partially lost air pressure, but the inner chamber protected Ham. Furthermore, upon its return to Earth, the chimpanzee’s capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean around 130 miles away from NASA’s intended target.
The capsule started to take on water and it took hours for rescuers to get to Ham. Yet somehow after everything Ham went through, the chimp miraculously survived with only a bruised nose.
The First Chimp in Space Becomes a National Hero
Ham’s courage during the historical space flight became a huge story around the world. It turned the chimpanzee into an American hero overnight. He became the focus of countless news articles, the subject of documentaries, starred in cartoons, and graced the covers of national magazines. In fact, Ham’s contributions to space flight paved the way for Alan Shepard, Jr., the first American in space.
The famous chimp never returned to outer space. Instead, he lived out the rest of his days in zoos. Throughout his remaining years, Ham received fan mail and made occasional TV appearances following his heroics. In 1963, officials transferred him to The National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he lived alone for years. But eventually, officials transferred Ham to the North Carolina Zoo where he lived the remainder of his life around other chimps.
On Jan. 18, 1983, “Ham the Astrochimp” passed away 22 years after his historic flight into space at the estimated age of 26. The heroic chimp’s intelligence and bravery during his 1961 flight played a vital role in America’s race to space.
“These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed,” says NASA’s website under ‘A Brief History of Animals in Space.’ “They gave their lives and/or their service in the name of technological advancement, paving the way for humanity’s many forays into space.”