Ham, the chimp who was the first hominid in space, trained by NASA to operate a capsule in space. His trainer described the moment he was recovered from his capsule following the project – “I have never seen such terror on a chimp’s face”
Ham was born in 1957 in a rainforest in the Central African nation of Cameroon, then a French territory. He was captured and taken to an astronaut school for chimps at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The astrochimps were trained to pull levers, with a banana pellet as a reward and an electric shock to the feet for failure. The chosen chimp would test life support systems and demonstrate that equipment could be operated during spaceflight. Ham showed great aptitude, and was selected the day before the flight.
On January 31, 1961, Ham was launched into space, strapped into a capsule inside the nosecone of a Mercury-Redstone rocket. The rocket travelled at 9,000km/h, and reached an altitude of 251km. The whole flight took 16 minutes from launch to return
Throughout the journey Ham was obliged to pull a lever. He received two shocks for not doing this correctly, out of 50 pulls. He achieved this with a 16cm rectal thermometer in place to monitor his temperature.
He experienced 6.6 minutes of free fall and 14.7_g_ of acceleration on descent – much greater than predicted. The biomedical data showed Ham experienced stress during acceleration and deceleration.
Jane Goodall, an expert in primate behavior, said she had never seen such terror in a chimp’s expression. However, Ham was calm when weightless.
Ham survived the flight itself, but nearly drowned when the capsule started filling with water after its ocean splashdown. Fortunately, the helicopter recovery team reached him in time. Ham’s treat on emerging from the spacecraft was an apple, which he devoured eagerly.
After his flight, Ham lived for 20 years by himself, in a zoo in Washington DC. People wrote him letters, and some were answered by zoo staff signed with Ham’s fingerprint. In 1980 he was sent to another zoo to live with a group of chimps. He died in 1983 at the age of 26.