Ham in his special space suit and capsule before his flight on January 31, 1961 (NASA).
Through the 1940’s to 1960’s, while the Soviet space program studied spaceflight with dogs, the early American space program focused on bringing monkeys to space to test survivability before sending humans.
The very first animal(s) to successfully fly in space were fruit flies in 1947. The United States placed the flies on a German V-2rocket, which survived their 3-minute long flight. This project aimed to see if the flies could survive higher altitudes where exposure to harmful radiation from the Sun is greater. Because the flies survived the capsule’s maximum height altitude of 68 miles (109 km), these are considered the first living things to survive spaceflight from Earth. This is because the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space is internationally accepted to be at 100 kilometers (62 miles or 330,000 feet), known as the Kármán line. In comparison, a typical commercial flight cruises at a height of around 10 kilometers (33,000 feet or 6.2 miles).
Eventually, larger animals were studied in space, of which many were primates. In 1951, a monkey called Yorick flew to space with eleven mice, making him the first primate to survive his trip space.
Ham the chimpanzee was one of many to be trained and fly as part of the early American space program. What differentiates Ham from the other chimpanzees that flew to space before him was that he was not just a passenger. Previous chimps sat in their space capsules and waited for their return to Earth. Instead, Ham interacted with the spacecraft by responding to signals sent from Earth by pulling levers in his capsule. At the time of Ham’s flight, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was a newly formed space agency, so this spaceflight mission was conducted to study if living creatures could survive in space (more specifically, humans).
Ham, a light-faced Pan satyruschimpanzee, was born in the summer of 1957 in the African rainforests of the French Cameroons. From here, he was sent to a farm in Miami, Florida and later purchased by the United States Air Force. The two-year-old chimp was brought to the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he was trained and tested as one of forty chimpanzees. The animals were used to help scientists understand the effects of high-speed movement, the forces of gravity, and other conditions that were expected in space travel. Eventually, this was narrowed down to six possible chimpanzee candidates for the flight. Throughout this selected, the animals grew very close with their caretakers and were carefully monitored by veterinarians. Frequent check-ups looked at the health of the chimps’ skeletons, heart and muscles, and made sure the animals were not suffering from any bugs or parasites.
Ham was carefully trained for his journey to space and was supervised by a neuroscientist at the American Air Force Base’s Aero Medial Field Laboratory. Known as No. 65, his training involved learning to perform tasks that he would have to complete while in space. This included being taught to perform in-flight experiments by hitting designated levers at certain times. Three lights were placed in front of the chimpanzees, each with a lever below them. One red light was continually illuminated and its lever was to never be pulled. The middle white light would come on only when the chimp would pull the lever below this. The chimps needed to pull this lever to shine the white light once every twenty seconds. The third light was blue and would shine at random times for five seconds. The chimps would have to pull the blue light’s lever within this five-second time frame.
When the chimpanzees correctly pulled these levers during these exercises, they were rewarded with a banana-flavored pellet and water. In January of 1961, the top six of the chimpanzees, including Ham, were brought to the rocket’s launch location in Florida. The one chimp selected to fly to space was only chosen the day before the flight. During this training, Ham was noticeably quicker at responding to these lights than the other trained chimpanzees. This quick learning and agility paired with his consistent good mood and strong health lead to Ham being ultimately selected as the chosen chimp to fly in space. Ham’s mission had also selected a backup chimpanzee named Minnie.
The capsule that carried him to space was designed to resemble future capsules that would eventually bring man to space as well. The entire capsule was no larger than a telephone booth and included Ham’s chamber that allowed him to freely move his arms and was equipped with a window. This chamber was designed to control oxygen, temperature and pressure in order to support Ham’s journey. Within this chamber, Ham would wear his specially fitted spacesuit and would pull the levers as instructed during training.
Ham’s capsule was placed on top of the 83-foot Redstone rocket as part of mission MR-2. This mission was part of project Mercury and the flight finally took place at lunchtime on January 31st, 1961 from Cape Canavral, Florida. On flight day, Ham received a final check-up for his flight and enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, cereal and condensed milk. He weighed 37.5 pounds and was, at the time, the largest animal to fly in space. He was also the first creature to respond intelligently to signals from Earth while in space. Ham began his pulling of the light’s levers as soon as the rocket launched, so scientists could measure how his reaction time and responses changed throughout the different phases of the flight (including launch, weightlessness and re-entry to Earth).
The capsule separated from the rocket around two and a half minutes after launch, reaching speeds of well over 4,000 miles per hour (roughly twice as fast as a bullet). Ham experienced weightlessness for around six minutes and was monitored by scientists from the ground. These scientists began to worry when the chamber measured lower levels of pressure, but Ham’s spacesuit prevented him from being exposed and suffering any harm. Through the chamber’s video feed, he appeared unbothered by the new environment and continued to play his gave of levers as he was trained. It was later discovered that he pulled his levers just a fraction of a second slower during his flight compared to his times documented during training. Nonetheless, Ham performed his tasks perfectly and showed that humans could perform maneuvering tasks in space too.
Ham’s mission was to survive his sub-orbital spaceflight. This means that his spacecraft went into space but it did not go high or fast enough to where it can orbit, or circle, Earth. Furthermore, if Ham were to successfully survive and conduct his in-flight tasks during the flight, this would be one of the pivotal go-aheads for the first American astronaut to fly that same year.
On the descent back to Earth, parachutes opened at two and four minutes before touchdown. The capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean, around 420 miles off the shore from Cape Canaveral, where a helicopter collected it to a nearby recovery ship. Although Ham’s flight in space lasted only around seventeen minutes, it is around three hours after launch that the capsule is deposited on the ship. This is because the capsule overshot its mark, requiring more time for recovery.
Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket (NASA).
Upon removal from his capsule, Ham appeared content as he shook hands with the mission’s crew and the recovery ship’s commander. He suffered only a small bruise on his nose and was soon referred to as a “trailblazer in space”. Other than being a little wobbly on his legs, Ham’s physical condition after his flight was excellent. He enjoyed a fresh red apple as his post-flight snack onboard the recovery ship.
After his flight, the chimpanzee was no longer called No. 65, and instead was called Ham after the laboratory that trained him for his mission, the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. Furthermore, the lab commander at the time was Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton “Ham” Blackshear. In May of that same year (just three months after Ham’s flight) the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, was launched into space in the Freedom 7space capsule, also as part of project Mercury. Similarly, Enos was another pioneering chimpanzee of the American Mercury program that was also trained at the Holloman Air Force base. Enos survived in his capsule for two full orbits around the Earth in November 1961, which later lead the way from American astronaut John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth in February of 1962.
Ham lived out the rest of his life in the Washington, D.C. National Zoo and the North Carolina Zoo before passing in 1983. His skeleton was kept at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Ham rightfully earned his place at the International Space Hall of Fame, where he is buried in New Mexico.