First Chimp in Space
Who was the first chimp in space?
During the Mercury program, there was fierce competition among the seven astronauts over which one would make the first flight. The one to ride the first Mercury spacecraft would be the first American and possibly the first man to explore space. Eternal fame awaited.
Largely unknown was another equally fierce competition playing out at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. There, scientists were training a group of 40 candidates to fly the Mercury spacecraft and Redstone Rocket before the seven astronauts would risk their lives.
This competition involved a group of chimps. And unlike their human counterparts, the candidates had no idea what they were competing to do or the enduring fame that awaited the first chimp in space.
The scientists at Holloman started out with 40 chimps. Beginning in July 1959, the animals were put through a series of fairly simple tasks in which they were taught to pull levers in response to sounds and lights. If they did so within five seconds, they were awarded with banana pellets. If they were late, they got mild shocks to the soles of their feet. The chimps were also exposed to microgravity and g-forces in simulators.
As the tests continued, scientists shrunk the group from 40 to 18 and then to 6. Eventually, one candidate, known as No. 65, was selected to become the first chimp in space. The scientists named him Ham after Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.
Ham, the first chimpanzee in space
Ham was a male chimp born in July 1956 in the African nation of Cameroon. He was captured by animal trappers and shipped across the ocean to the Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida. In 1959, the United States Air Force purchased the chimp and sent him to Holloman.
On Jan. 31, 1961, Ham was strapped inside a Mercury capsule and blasted into space by a Redstone Rocket on a short, 15-minute suborbital flight. Ham performed like a champ, pulling the levers at only a fraction of a second slower than he did on Earth.
It was not an easy flight. The rocket imparted more thrust than planned, subjecting Ham to high g forces and sending the capsule farther out into the ocean than expected. The capsule also suffered a partial loss of pressure; the chimp was saved by his pressure suit. After landing, the capsule leaked badly; Ham was fortunate that recovery forces found him when they did or he might have drowned.
The first chimp in space became an instant celebrity, appearing on television many times. He lived for another 22 years, first at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and then at the North Carolina Zoo.