Astrochimp Ham: victim or hero?

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Ham the Chimp, born in 1957, was one of hundreds of experimental animals enrolled into NASA’s Project Mercury, a programme that sought to put a human into space. After being born in French Cameroons, the US Air Force engaged collectors to source chimps from the native forest. Three years later, over a dozen animals flew from Africa to the US, entering the “School for Space Chimps” at the Holloman Air Force Base in Alamagordo, New Mexico. Subject 65, aka Ham (Holloman Aerospace Medical Center), was head of the class and quickly learned the lever-pushing tasks required of him.

A terrified Ham reaches out for an apple after his space flight in 1961. Photograph: National Archives Photograph: National Archives

In 1961, Ham and the next five most promising primates were flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida to prepare for an experimental flight. With just days to go, Ham got the nod. Dressed in a nappy, waterproof pants and spacesuit, fitted with sensors to monitor his heart rate, breathing, and body temperature during flight, his handlers strapped him into a capsule that would sit inside the nosecone of the Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket. When MR-2 took off on 31 January 1961, Goodall was horrified when she saw footage of Ham recorded during his sixteen-minute ordeal and photographs taken upon recovering his capsule.

Ham in his capsule, with his handler Edward Dittmer (left). Photograph: NASA Photograph: NASA

Ham was the first primate in space, exiting earth’s atmosphere some ten weeks ahead of Soviet pioneer Yuri Gagarin and over three months before Alan Shepard. NASA’s portrayal of Ham tends towards the heroic, with footage taken within the capsule during flight usually edited, showing a relaxed and apparently happy Ham.

Drawer containing specimen 1871496 (aka Ham the Chimp) at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine. Photograph: Henry Nicholls Photograph: Henry Nicholls

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