Sad Story of Ham The first Chimpanzee in Space [Death Video]

The first monkeys and chimps sent into space by NASA mostly suffered horrible fates in the name of scientific researched. Before mankind took the giant leap, we sent our monkey cousins into space to suss out the great unknown for us. With little knowledge of how the human body would respond to escalated altitudes, U.S. researchers sent primates into the sky as test subjects.

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Let’s just say that the results were not favourable for the poor little guys.

The first of many to be sent up in a V2 rocket by NASA was a rhesus monkey named Albert in June 1948. Sadly, Albert only made it as high as 63km above ground before he died of suffocation.

Albert I (NASA)

Exactly a year later a second monkey named Albert made it to an altitude of 134km, making him the first primate to actually reach space heights.

But even though Albert II survived the launch, he died upon impact when his parachute failed to open on the way back down.

Alberts III and IV perished during their flights in late 1949, and Albert V suffered another parachute malfunction in 1951.

With a fresh new moniker, Yorick the space cadet (previously known as Albert VI), survived his 72km flight in 1951.

However the bad omens associated with his original name came back to haunt the animal, who suffered fatal heat exhaustion under the hot New Mexico sun while waiting to be released from his cramped metal capsule.

1959 marked a milestone in monkey space travel.

Not only did a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker and rhesus monkey named Miss Able reach the astounding new height of 483km aboard a Jupiter rocket, but they also came back alive.

Miss Baker (NASA)

But the good news was short-lived (pardon the pun) as Miss Able lasted only several days before a medical operation to remove an electrode proved fatal and she joined her intergalactic comrades in monkey heaven.

Sad Story of Ham The first Chimpanzee in Space [Death Video]

Miss Baker, however, went on to live a long and happy life, becoming a national treasure.

She married twice and eventually died of kidney failure in 1984 at the ripe old age of 27. People still lay bananas at her grave in Huntsville, Alabama.

A rhesus monkey named Sam (an acronym for the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine) took off on a Little Joe rocket aboard the Mercury capsule in December, 1959.

After reaching an altitude of only 82km, the spacecraft was aborted but landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Sam was safely recovered after his short journey.

Sam (NASA)

Soon after, in January, 1960, Sam’s mate Miss Sam was also launched in a Mercury capsule.

This mission proved even less fruitful, only reaching an altitude of 15km before also landing in the Atlantic Ocean nearby the launch site. No monkeys named Sam were harmed in either mission.

While Russia was busy sending dogs into the sky and France was experimenting with intergalactic cats, America’s tests with monkeys paved the way for larger primates, and eventually humans to be sent on space odysseys by the U.S.

Chimpanzees — being more closely related to humans — seemed like a natural choice for NASA to experiment with next.

A chimp named Ham embarked on a suborbital spaceflight in January 1961, achieving an altitude of 253km.

While he was a bit dehydrated, Ham came out of the 16.5-minute flight unscathed, signalling another success for researchers.

Sad Story of Ham The first Chimpanzee in Space [Death Video]

Ham (NASA)

The Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to ever reach space when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961.

Shortly after, on May 5, 1961, American astronaut Alan Shepard became the second person and the first American human to travel into space.

Shepard’s Mercury mission was designed to enter space, but not achieve orbit. The first American to orbit the Earth was a chimp named Enos who flew into space aboard Mercury Atlas 5 on November 29, 1961.

It took him one hour and 28.5 minutes to orbit the Earth and while he landed safely, an equipment malfunction meant that he suffered repeated electric shocks during the flight.

Despite his traumatic on-board experience, Enos’ mission paved the way for John Glenn’s famous orbital flight on February 20, 1962.

Enos (NASA)

While human space travel was becoming safer and thus more popular, it did not put a complete halt to primate experiments in space.

A large squirrel monkey, aptly named Goliath, was killed in an Air Force Atlas E rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in late 1961.

In 1969, a pig-tailed monkey named Bonnie spent nine days in orbit before suffering a fatal heart attack brought on by dehydration.

During the 1980s, the Soviet Union began putting pairs of monkeys into orbit in a series of satellites called Bion.

This continued up until Bion 11 was launched on December 24, 1996, carrying the monkeys Lapik and Multik on a 14-day flight that Multik did not recover from.

The monkey’s death finally shone light on the questionable ethics of using animals for research and the Bion missions ceased.

Sad Story of Ham The first Chimpanzee in Space [Death Video]

Iran, late to the party, began trying to send monkeys into space in 2011 after experimenting on a rat, turtle and worms.

In 2013 they claimed to achieve success when a monkey named Fargam was blasted 120km above Earth’s surface atop a liquid fuelled rocket in a 15-minute mission.

Luckily, the Iranian monkey did not suffer the sad fate of many of his foreign friends. Fargam made it safely back to Earth, ending our tale of space monkeys on a high note.

On January 31, 1961 Ham became the first chimpanzee in space. Save the Chimps honors Ham, his courage, and his unwilling sacrifice.

The Space Chimps, or “Astrochimps,” hold a special place in the hearts of everyone at Save the Chimps. It was the plight of the Air Force chimps, the chimpanzees used in the early days of space research, and their descendants, that inspired our late founder Dr. Carole Noon to establish Save the Chimps.

Ham’s story spans the globe and into the reaches of space. Born in Cameroon in approximately 1957, Ham was captured and brought to a facility in Florida called the Miami Rare Bird Farm.

In July 1959, Ham was transferred to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, NM, to be trained for space flight as part of Project Mercury. Ham at the time was known as Chang, or #65, and was renamed at the time of his spaceflight after the acronym for “Holloman Aero Medical.”

Ham and other young chimpanzees, including Minnie (the mother of two STC residents, Rebel and Li’l Mini) and Enos (who would become the first and only chimpanzee to orbit the Earth), were habituated to long periods of confinement in a chair, and trained to operate levers in response to light cues.

After 18 months of training, Ham was selected as the chimpanzee whose life would be risked to test the safety of space flight on the ape body.

On January 31, 1961, after several hours of waiting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, FL, 3 ½ year old Ham was propelled into space, strapped into a container called a “couch.”
Ham’s flight lasted approximately 16 ½ minutes. He travelled at a speed of approximately 5800 mph, to a height of 157 miles above the earth.

He experienced about 6 ½ minutes of weightlessness. Incredibly, despite the intense speed, g-forces, and weightlessness, Ham performed his tasks correctly. After the flight, Ham’s capsule splashed down 130 miles from its target, and began taking on water.

It took several hours for a recovery ship to reach Ham, but miraculously he was alive and relatively calm considering his ordeal. When he was finally released from the “couch” however, his face bore an enormous grin.

Although interpreted as a happy smile by many people, Ham’s expression was one of extreme fear and anxiety. That fear was demonstrated again sometime later through an act of defiance.

Photographers wanted another shot of Ham in his “couch.” Ham refused to go back into it, and multiple adult men were unable to force him to do so.

Unlike the rest of the space chimps, Ham was spared decades of biomedical research, but he did have a lonely existence for many years.

He was transferred to The National Zoo in 1963, where he lived alone for 17 years, before finally being sent to the North Carolina Zoo where he could live with other chimps. He died 22 years after his historic flight into space, on January 18, 1983, at the estimated age of 26.

Ham’s flight is remarkable for many reasons. Ham not only survived the flight, but performed his tasks correctly, despite the rigors of space flight and the fear he must have experienced.

His courage and heroism paved the way for Alan Shepard, Jr., the first American in space. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is often lost in all of the writings about Ham: he was a baby.

If Ham had not been kidnapped and his mother killed, he still would have been nursing at age 3 ½, dependent on his mother for survival.

Humans are often considered more intelligent than chimpanzees, yet it is hard to imagine a human toddler performing as well as Ham in this challenging task. It speaks to Ham’s character, intelligence, and bravery.

We honor and remember Ham and all of the young chimpanzees who suffered through the tragic deaths of their mothers and the transatlantic journey to the United States to become test subjects for space flight.

Although Ham had no children, Save the Chimps is proud to have provided a peaceful retirement for other survivors and descendants of the space chimp program.

As Dr. Carole Noon once said, “They have bravely served their country. They are heroes and veterans.”

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