NASA HISTORY: ‘Ham the Astro Chimp’ Launched into Space From Cape Canaveral in January 1961
By Space Coast Daily // October 15, 2023
Mercury capsule reached an altitude of 150 miles from Cape Canaveral, flight was 16 minutes and 39 seconds
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA — Ham the Astrochimp was launched from Brevard County for an 18-minute flight aboard a Mercury capsule that reached an altitude of 150 miles from Cape Canaveral on January 31, 1961.
The results from his test flight led directly to the mission Alan Shepard made on May 5, 1961, aboard Freedom 7.
Ham’s flight in the Mercury capsule was a preliminary test before the launching of a human into orbit. Ham’s name is an acronym for the laboratory that prepared him for his historic mission—the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, southwest of Alamogordo.
His name was also in honor of the commander of Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton “Ham” Blackshear.
Ham was born in July 1957 in French Cameroon, captured by animal trappers, and sent to the Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida. He was purchased by the United States Air Force and brought to Holloman Air Force Base in July 1959.
Beginning in July 1959, the two-year-old chimpanzee was trained under the direction of neuroscientist Joseph V. Brady at Holloman Air Force Base Aero-Medical Field Laboratory to do simple, timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds.
During his pre-flight training, Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light; failure to do so resulted in an application of a light electric shock to the soles of his feet, while a correct response earned him a banana pellet.
On January 31, 1961, Ham was secured in a Project Mercury mission designated MR-2 and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight. Ham’s vital signs and tasks were monitored by sensors and computers on Earth.
The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham’s space suit prevented him from suffering any harm. Ham’s lever-pushing performance in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating that tasks could be performed in space.
Ham’s capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by the USS Donner later that day. His only physical injury was a bruised nose. His flight was 16 minutes and 39 seconds long.
In 1963, Ham was transferred to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for 17 years before joining a small group of chimps at the North Carolina Zoo in 1980.
Ham died in 1983, and his grave is at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico.