Monkey on a mission: The life of Ham

Shona Dennis

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Ham, the first monkey to survive space. Photo Credit : Nasa on The Commons (Flickr)
Ham, the first monkey to survive space. Photo Credit : NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center(Flickr)

Before the world could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, hundreds of experimental animals were required to undergo extensive testing. These animals, mainly chimpanzees, were enrolled into NASA’s Project Mercury, unwittingly becoming the test subjects needed to decipher if the human body could withstand long periods of weightlessness during space travel. You may not have heard of Ham, an early space pioneer of the 1960s, but he was the first primate to go to space, exiting the earth’s atmosphere ten weeks ahead of Soviet pioneer Yuri Gagarin. As a result, we learned that an animal quite similar to humans could have his body and mind function while in orbit. However, unlike these men who came home and were hailed as national heroes, Ham returned as a successful set of statistics.

Shortly after Ham was born in Central Africa c.1957, the US Air Force ordered animal collectors to source some chimps from the rainforest. Three years later, more than a dozen animals were transported from Africa to the USA, and entered into what was referred to as the “School for Space Chimps” at the Halloman Airforce Base in New Mexico. In the same year that Ham was born, the Soviet Union made significant advancements in space travel by putting the first artificial satellite into orbit in space, followed thereafter by a dog named Laika (the first animal astronaut).

As part of America’s animal astronaut force – subject 65, a.k.a Ham (short for Holloman Aerospace Medical) –was best in class. He was fit, quickly learned the lever-pushing tasks required of him and not too fussy when it was time to strap him into his practice capsule. When Ham preformed a task correctly, he received a banana-flavoured pellet and a sip of water. If he made a mistake, he received a minor electric shock. His handler Edward Dittmer grew quite fond of his subject, praising his performances, his affable manner, and likening him to a child.

Ham pictured with his trainer in Florida
Ham pictured with his trainer. Photo credit: NASA on The Commons (Flickr)

In early 1961, Ham and five other promising chimps were flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida to prepare for an experimental flight. The purpose of this mission, according to a NASA press release issued in January 1961, 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.”

With just three days to go, Ham was selected for the job. On the morning of January 31, 1961, in south Florida, the then 5-year-old chimp ate a breakfast of cereal, condensed milk and half an egg. Dressed in a nappy, waterproof trousers and a special spacesuit, the unassuming primate then went out and made aeronautic history. His handlers strapped him into a capsule that would sit inside the Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket. When it was launched it travelled thousands of miles an hour, reaching almost 160 miles above the Earth.

During Ham’s 16-minute voyage, he experienced some crushing forces on take-off and landing and total weightlessness for more than six minutes. But apart from his evident terror during the event and a bruised nose, he was not seriously harmed. The success of Ham’s flight only encouraged the intense contest for space supremacy between the the Soviet Union and the USA — and its significance briefly saw Ham experience the limelight.

Ham is greeted by a NASA official upon his return
Ham being greeted upon his return. Photo credit: NASA on The Commons

After his space journey,Ham spent almost 20 years in retirement alone at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. before he was moved to North Carolina Zoo with a small colony of other chimps. When he died in 1983 at the relatively young age (for his kind) of 25, there was public upset at the idea that his body might be stuffed and put on display at the Air and Space Museum . As a result, the US Air Force (to which Ham still legally belonged) agreed to bury him at the International Space Hall of Fame at the Museum of Space History in New Mexico. However, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology still kept his actual skeleton for the purpose of “ongoing examination”.

He was, as animals kept for science are, used like an object and  served as a means to an end. NASA, in fact, only bestowed upon Ham his name when he had returned from space. Otherwise they feared that should something have gone wrong, the public would have already openly embraced the chimp and mourned his passing, whereas ‘Subject 65’ was less likely to appeal to their hearts early-on.

Space monkey souvenirs at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson (Flickr)
Space monkey souvenirs at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson (Flickr)

Indeed, many of the monkeys used as test subjects for space travel before Ham did not survive. A squirrel monkey by the name of Gordo was catapulted 600 miles high in a Jupiter rocket on December 13th 1950, one year after the Soviets launched Laika the dog. Gordo’s capsule was never found upon landing in the Atlantic Ocean and he died on impact when a flotation mechanism failed. Able, a rhesus monkey, and Baker, another squirrel monkey, embarked upon their journey on May 28th 1959. Launched in cone of a rocket, the two monkeys were carried to an altitude of 300 miles high, and both were recovered unharmed. However, Able died shortly after during surgery from the effects of anaesthesia, as doctors were preparing to recover an electrode from inside of her. There were several other cases of dogs, monkeys and mice dying from failed journeys long before 1961.

NASA’s portrayal of Ham now in retrospect leans more towards hailing him a cute little hero, but largely brushes over any possible negative or unethical aspects of his use. Footage taken within the capsule during his flight is usually edited, showing a calm and apparently happy Ham. Whereas the full length video, not available on NASA’s website, clearly shows him in distress at certain points. His life, ranging from the time he was captured to his training, voyage and confinement in a zoo is a testament to the ways in which animals are sacrificed in pursuit of our scientific ambitions. However, it is only the fact he was a test subject for space that gives Ham his unique edge, for as we know- there have been and continue to be millions of other animals like him that have had their natural lives sacrificed for the benefit of ours.

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Shona Dennis