Heroes of Space: Ham the chimpanzee

As the first primate in space, Ham paved the way for human exploration

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Ham is awarded an apple following his successful recovery from the Atlantic Ocean

Ham is awarded an apple following his successful recovery from the Atlantic Ocean

Born during the summer of 1957, this chimpanzee’s life would make history in America’s space program. It all began with his capture: Ham was taken away from his home in Cameroon in the west of Central Africa, before being sent to a farm in Miami, Florida. He was held in captivity and was only later purchased by the United States Air Force.

Taken from his home known as Rare Bird Farm, the two-year-old chimpanzee was sent to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1959. Here he would meet 40 of his own kind and it wasn’t long until he would be pitted against each of them, taking part in a series of training tests that would see him leave the Earth’s atmosphere into space. Known simply as No. 65, the chimpanzee took part in evaluation after evaluation until he was one of six potential primates to fly.

Under the supervision of Joseph Brady, a neuroscientist at the Air Force Base’s Aero Medical Field Laboratory, No. 65 did well on his tasks where he responded to electric lights and sounds. His reaction speeds were impeccable compared with the others he trained with, as he quickly pushed levers within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. He was a fast learner and quickly figured out that a correct response to his training would earn him a banana treat.

Soon he was ready to board suborbital flight MR-2 as part of Project Mercury on the very last day of January 1961. NASA was a newly formed space agency at this point in history and the mission would be the United States’ first step in a major project to eventually put a human astronaut in orbit around Earth.

A three-year-old chimpanzee Ham in the biopack couch for the MR-2 suborbital test flight

A three-year-old chimpanzee Ham in the biopack couch for the MR-2 suborbital test flight

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, scientists on the ground monitored his health and watched as the astrochimp completed his tasks – it was soon revealed that he achieved them a fraction of a second slower than he had done so in pre-flight training. However, soon into the flight, ground control had cause to worry: the MR-2 capsule began to suffer loss of pressure and they waited with bated breath for the worst to happen. Amazingly though, No. 65 avoided any harm thanks to his pressurised spacesuit and continued to prove that it was possible to achieve his assigned tasks in space.

When it was time to come back down to the Earth, the chimpanzee’s return wasn’t a soft one by any stretch of the imagination. The capsule hurtled through our planet’s atmosphere, splashing in the Atlantic Ocean, and was later recovered by a rescue ship – but would there be a life to rescue? Opening the capsule’s hatch, his rescuers found the chimp had survived his 16 minutes and 39 seconds to and from space with nothing more than a bruised nose.

The fledgling NASA no longer had cause to worry about the public’s reaction to naming the chimp prior to this unpredictable mission, so his designated number was taken away and he was given a name. The chimpanzee became known as Ham – an acronym for the laboratory that prepared him for his mission, the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.

Ham lived out the next 17 years of his life in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. before moving to the North Carolina Zoo. Following Ham’s mission, in May 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard was launched into space aboard Freedom 7. This was the United States’ first human spaceflight under Project Mercury, which owes its great success to the results returned by Ham – an animal astronaut who has earned his place on the International Space Hall of Fame.

Image Credit: NASA

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