Watching the Space Race: Going Ape

by Walt Staples

The monkey glared down at me with the sort of naked hatred one primate can only feel for another. Were I him, I'd have felt pretty much the same. Torn from his nice toasty jungle at an early age, he now found himself constantly chilly and confronted by a troop of primates so outsized that even the smallest outweighed him by a factor of seven. Basically, Ivan Denisovich in Brobdingnag. But, he held his own; whenever one of them came near, he bared his teeth. If that didn't stop them, he'd set forth a scream that guaranteed that all the dogs and cats would immediately evacuate the house and yards. His final line of defense was to attempt to find an appendage on one of the brutes small enough to get in his mouth. The only thing he wanted was to be gone. By the second month after my usually level-headed uncle had picked up the prisoner at the Sears and Roebuck catalog store in Staunton and brought him to the dairy farm as a Christmas present for his six-year-old daughter, he was sorely in agreement with that ambition. Among my uncle's brothers, the betting was equal money between the escape involving a firearm or a loosened chain followed by some lucky predator. As it turned out, winter in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley ended the tragedy.

All of which explained my shock at the photo in the Washington Star of a chimpanzee apparently cordially shaking the hand of a sea captain. The captain displayed no tooth marks or bandages, and the ape looked pretty relaxed. Of course, shaking a captain's hand was probably a relief after what he'd just been through.

Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.                        Photo from Wikipedia.

Throughout most of history, lesser beings have generally been tasked with being the first to try something new, whether it was seeing if the dinner at the Borgia's was up to standards or if there really were Zulus hiding around the spring. The space program was no different. As enlisted men could no longer be pilots, other primates went into space first.

The first tests involving animal payloads began with the U.S. Army's launch of domesticated V2s (read: captured from the Third Reich and demilitarized) in the late 1940s. One of the things learned from these flights was that mammals could survive spaceflight. Another thing learned was that mice are a lot more resistant to a sudden stop at the end of the flight than primates. All of the primates on these missions were named “Albert” (probably for the same reason animals raised for the table tend to be anonymous—you don't name your breakfast).

Over on the other side of the hill, the Soviets preferred dogs as passengers. Not having opposable thumbs, the feeling was that they tended to be less trouble to deal with. There is the story that one of the dogs went AWOL* a day before its scheduled launch. A stray found near the base's canteen was grabbed and substituted (lending a whole new meaning to “dog robber”**). One of the puppies from a dog the Soviets had orbited was given to President John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, during a brief warm spot in the Cold War.

The subject of the photo op with the captain of the recovery ship USS Donner, Ham, was born and captured in Cameroon in 1956 and purchased in Florida by the Air Force. Like Patrick McGoohan in the TV show, “The Prisoner,” Ham's official name was a number, 65, though the staff referred to him as, “Chop Chop Chang.” It was felt that losing a named chimp on a flight would be bad publicity.

He trained for his mission at Holloman Air Force Base. Training involved learning to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a blue light. If he preformed correctly, he received a banana pellet; if he didn't, what's described as a “mild” shock was administered to the soles of his feet. He would be the first biological payload that would be required to preform a function while in flight.

Ham became “Ham” with his successful suborbital flight aboard Mercury-Redstone 2 on 31 January 1961. His new name was an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. During the flight, his vital signs and lever pushing were monitored with the result that his functioning was only slowed by a fraction of a second. This suggested that humans could also readily preform tasks during spaceflight. The only untoward happening while in flight was a partial cabin depressurization, which was successfully handled by his space suit. After 16 and a half minutes, the Mercury capsule splashed down in the Atlantic and was recovered by the Donner. On examination, Ham's only injury was found to be a bruised nose. The handshake and photo with the skipper followed.

After the flight, Ham lived at the National Zoo in DC for 17 years before ending his days at age 26 at the North Carolina Zoo at Asheboro. His remains, minus his skeleton, are buried beneath a memorial plaque at the New Mexico Museum of Space History at Alamogordo. His skeleton is in the collection at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's National Museum of Heath and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The next Mercury capsule would carry Alan Shepard on the first American manned suborbital flight.

* AWOL—Absent WithOut Leave

** ”dog robber”--military slang for an officer's servant, normally called an orderly or batman depending on the army.

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