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The Tragic Tale of Ham The Chimp

Before Alan Shepherd and Neil Armstrong, there was Ham – a 37-pound chimpanzee. Ham the Chimp, often viewed as a hero at the same time as being viewed as an unwitting victim in the infamous space race, was the first hominid launched into space.

Ham was just one of the six experimental chimps enrolled into NASA’s Project Mercury. The six chimps were flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida where they trained in Mercury simulators for three weeks. The purpose of the flight was to provide “a check of the craft’s environmental control and recovery systems” and “a first test of the functioning of the life support system during an appreciable period – nearly five minutes – of zero gravity.”

In short: Chimp was a guinea pig to see if human life could survive a flight into space…

The day before the flight, two chimps were chosen for the mission: one primary, Ham, and one backup, Minnie. Ultimately, Ham was chosen for the experiment due to his “energy and good humour.”1

Ham was from Cameroon, Africa, and was purchased by the USAF on the 9th of July, 1959, for just $457. In the same year that Ham was born, the Soviet Union stunned the world with its Sputnik missions. They put the first artificial satellite and then the first animal, a stray dog called Laika, into orbit.  There were never any arrangements for Laika to return to earth and sadly she died after just a few hours in space due to overheating. The Soviet government originally kept that secret and claimed she was euthanized due to oxygen depletion.

The US responded by creating NASA and training the team of chimps to pave the way for a manned mission. The space race was on.

Ham during training.

Originally called subject 65 due to the reluctance to send a named chimp into space if anything were to go wrong, Ham was sent on the suborbital flight on the 31st of January, 1961. He was dressed in a nappy, waterproof pants and a spacesuit. He was also fitted with sensors so that computers could monitor his heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. Then, he was stuffed into the capsule of the 25-metre-long Mercury-Restone 2 spacecraft.[/note]The Guardian, 31 January, 2011 – “Shortcuts: Space Exploration”[/note]

During the flight, his vital signs and various assigned tasks were closely monitored by computers back on Earth. During the flight, there was a partial loss in cabin pressure caused by vibrations loosening a pin in the snorkel valve, forcing the valve to open. Thankfully, Ham was wearing a spacesuit which protected him from any harm.

The young chimp experienced crushing forces on take-off and re-entry. He was successful in pushing the levers that he had been trained to push proving that it was certainly possible to perform tasks in space.2 If he correctly pushed the levers, he would receive a reward of banana pellets but if he didn’t push the levers, he would receive an electric shock. During the flight, the wiring went haywire due to the malformation in the valve. As a result, no matter what lever Ham pushed, he was given a cruel shock.3

The flight lasted for 16 minutes and 39 seconds before splashing down. Around 12 minutes later, the first recovery signal was received from the spacecraft. Tracking showed it was around 60 miles from the nearest recovery ship. Ham was recovered from the Atlantic 27 minutes after landing. He was rescued just in time as during landing, a hole was blown in the bulkhead and the capsule had started to fill with water and sink.

Ham after returning to earth. The fear on his face is evident.

His trainer described the moment he was recovered from his capsule following the project –  “I have never seen such terror on a chimp’s face.” Biologist, Jane Goodall, would say his face showed “the most extreme fear.”4

Following his flight, Ham spent the next 20 years alone in the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. before being moved to North Carolina Zoo, where he was able to mingle with other chimps.

He passed away at the young age of 26 on the 19th of January, 1983. A proposal to make a museum exhibit of his stuffed skin was thankfully frowned upon. “Talk about death without dignity,” read an article in the Washington Post. A letter in the Smithsonian Archives from a sophomore at West High School in Painted Post, New York, summed up the public mood: “By treating his body like that of a stupid beast, people will continue thinking of apes as stupid beasts, and not the intelligent, almost human animals they really are.”5

Instead, he was cremated and buried beneath a plaque at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico. His bones were preserved and are on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Ham was the real (unwitting) hero of the space race and he certainly paved the way for human space travel. Three months after his flight into space, astronaut Alan Shepard followed him. A year later, a chimp named Enos rode the Mercury space capsule twice around the planet two months before John Glenn made his orbit.

We must not forget that while Ham absolutely was a hero, he was also seen as a mere object and therefore became a victim. He was used as a guinea pig to see whether human life could survive in space. His life (and even his afterlife) is a grim reminder of the lengths humans will go to exploit animals in pursuit of their own ambitions.


  1. Dayton Examiner, 19 September, 2011 – “Mercury-Redstone”
  2. Hartford Examiner, 31 January, 2011 – “Mercury Rising”
  3. The Guardian, 25 February, 2009 – “Ham, the Real Hero of the Space Race”
  4. The Daily Herald, 1 February, 2014 – “U.S. Sends Chimp into Space”
  5. The Guardian, 16 December, 2013 – “Ham the Astrochimp: Hero or Victim?”

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Humans can be so selfish. Poor Ham. He really was a hero but at what cost?

Kelly Noble
Kelly Noble

Ham was an unwilling hero…and deserved better than he got. 20 yrs. Left alone in a zoo? Why?? No animal or human wants to be alone. I can understand maybe a yr of quarantine as back then, during that era people who scared of what could be brought back from space. But he deserved to be treated with love and grace. He was forced into something he had no idea he was doing. I’m sick of animals being used as test subjects to make things safe for humans…whether it’s space or…shampoo…animals have been used as test subjects. Ham deserved thanks…and… Read more »

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