Meet Ham, the first chimp to rocket into space (1961)

Ham the Space Chimp

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Shepard. Glenn. Armstrong. All of them rode on the back of a little 37-pound chimp whose name sounded more like lunch meat than the first primate in space.

In the penultimate test of Mercury-Redstone, NASA launched Ham the chimp on a sub-orbital flight on January 31, 1961. If all went well, Alan Shepard would follow in his footsteps just a short while later in the race to put a human into space and return him safely to earth.

Unfortunately for NASA — and Ham — things didn’t go quite perfectly, though Ham lived to tell the tale. An error in flight angle and added acceleration from the abort launch escape system resulted in Ham reaching over 5800 mph instead of the intended 4400 mph.

Accordingly, he was catapulted an additional 130 miles downrange from his intended splashdown point, and he experienced a mind-bending 14.7 g of deacceleration upon reentry, 3 g more than planned.

Despite all this, Ham came through the flight in good shape, and would go on to live to the ripe old age of 26, spending his time at the National Zoo in Washington DC and another zoo in North Carolina before passing away on January 19, 1983. America’s first space hero is buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. – AJW

First chimp into space - NASA

Space chimp enjoys the luxury of admiral at sea

Think he survived rocket ride in excellent shape

Aboard USS Donner at sea — Ham, the world-famous space chimpanzee, enjoyed all the luxuries of an admiral at sea Tuesday night.

The 37 1/4-pound male chimp, who Tuesday blazed a trail for America’s first human voyage in space, spent the night in the fairly plush commodore’s quarters of this veteran landing ship dock as it steamed over a moonlit South Atlantic toward the Grand Bahamas.

Those quarters — consisting of a four-room suite — are usually reserved for visiting admirals, commodores and other very important persons.

Not even the Donner’s regular skipper, Cmdr Ralph A Brackett, uses them as a regular thing.

It is true that Ham, the black-haired chimp with white chin whiskers and a brown face, slept in a cage.

It is true that Ham was placed on the bathroom floor and was lashed to (1) the toilet and (2) the safety rail. The latter is a device designed to prevent one from slipping after a shower aboard a rolling, pitching ship.

But these were merely safety precautions aimed at protecting a precious government research property. After all, studies of Ham and of data transmitted to the earth from his space capsule may go a long way toward evaluating prospects in store for the first man to duplicate this chimp’s ride 155 miles high above this planet.

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Major Richard Benson, an Air Force veterinary doctor, who was Ham’s roommate Tuesday night — with Benson sleeping in an adjoining stateroom — said all present evidence indicates that Ham survived the rigors of his 5,000 mph ride in excellent shape.

Ham did show a little fatigue, a little wobbling and trembling of his legs when standing, and a slight abrasion on the bridge of his nose.

His capsule landed in choppy waters of the Atlantic far from where recovery ships had expected it to land.

The capsule, bobbing on the sea for more than three hours before being retrieved by a daring helicopter team, flopped over on its side at some time during that wait, raising the possibility that the little space pioneer may have been head down for quite a while.

The Project Mercury Capsule, for reasons not yet determined, sprang leaks at some time during the flight or on impact with the result that the floor of the spacecraft had a foot and a half of water in it when sailors on the Donner opened it on a rolling flight deck.

The water had lapped against the base of Ham’s special chamber inside the capsule but did not penetrate it. If it had, Ham may well have been a goner.

Shortly after Ham, wearing diapers and rubber pants, was released from his capsule he was given a prize.

It was a red apple and, as he ate it, he was as chipper as any run-of-the-zoo chimp on a Sunday afternoon mugging for zoo visitors.

The young male chimp was freed from his capsule at 3:17 pm (CST) Tuesday. He had left Cape Canaveral rather abruptly at 10:55 am (CST) aboard a Redstone rocket.

The capsule was literally hooked from the sea’s surface by a Marine helicopter flier who had flown an emergency rescue mission of nearly 90 miles to return the capsule to the Donner.

Mercury-Redstone 2 launch

The Marine lieutenant reached from the helicopter’s cabin with a 16-foot shepherd’s crook and attached a towline from the aircraft to a loop on the capsule while the ‘copter hovered overhead.

Dangling from the helicopter, the capsule was sped to the flight deck and gently lowered at 2:38 pm (CST).

Sailors quickly removed the steel hatch exposing the enclosed chamber in which the chimp rode.

Immediately watchers heard the chimp’s voice. It sounded like a cross between a kitten’s meow and a baby’s cry.

“He’s alive,” said Benson. “He’s talking to us.”

Benson pushed an oxygen hose through a small port in the chamber while sailors worked to open a small porthole large enough for the doctor to insert his hand. Meanwhile, the chimp cried steadily.

“That could mean some anxiety,” Benson said. “He’s just vocalizing.”

A sailor who got a glimpse of the chimp was asked, “How does he look?”

“Fine,” replied the sailor. “He’s smiling at me.”

About 35 minutes after being placed on the deck, the plexiglass covered couch in which the chimp had been sealed was removed and Ham came into view.

The animal turned his head from side to side, watching onlookers curiously and licking his pink chops. He reached a couple of fingers of his right hand through the port to grasp the hand of Benson.

Chimpanzee Ham

Then he rubbed his face and eyes and yawned a bit. When the lid was completely removed, he shook hands with Benson, burped and folded his arms across his chest while the veterinarian applied a stethoscope to his chest.

As he did so, onlookers noted a sign at the end of the couch to which the chimp had been laced: “Have Gun, Will Travel.”

The doctor reached down to test the animal’s diapers. “They are damp,” said Benson.

Benson then announced: “On the basis of this preliminary examination, I would say he looks very good. It is very encouraging.”

The chimp was taken to the ship’s battle dressing station and there placed atop a white table where Benson checked on heartbeat, temperature, respiration and lung conditions and for evidence of any broken bones.

Everything was okay and the little ape’s reflexes also were normal.

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Shortly afterward Benson produced an apple. Ham became quite excited and began jumping with joy.

Benson cut the apple and fed it to the animal in slices. While he ate, Ham stood with his arm around the major.

Space Chimp - Astronaut Ham

The largest animal ever sent aloft, Ham’s trip 155 miles high and 420 miles southeast into the Atlantic into the rescuing hands of the US Navy carried several main significances.

1. It indicates manned space flight is feasible. An American astronaut is scheduled this spring to duplicate Ham’s daring flight.

2. The Soviets appear likely to win the race to be first to orbit a man around the earth.

3. A very slight misfiring in the rocket system hurling out Ham’s capsule may well require further tests with or without a chimp aboard, before a man goes up. But this also produced valuable dividends.

Ham’s test was a prelude to sending one of seven human volunteers on a similar flight.

MORE: How the Apollo 1 astronauts tragically died in a flash fire on the launchpad (1967)

But the Soviet Union bids to win on man in space for several reasons. The Soviets have long had far more powerful rockets. Sputnik II, launched in November, 1957, carried up the dog Laika. Since then, the Soviets have recovered two dogs, each weighing about 10 pounds, aboard a space craft sent into orbit last August.

Soviet space capsules are big enough perhaps to carry even two men at a time.

Soviet ships now patrolling the Pacific indicate the Soviet Union is on the verge of some new launching.

Ham arrived home at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Wednesday, some 25 hours after the jolting rocket trip.

He is due for thorough check-ups to learn if there are any danger signals against man going into space.

The pilot reported Ham is “happy, he looks very happy.”

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