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Ham the Chimp

Ham the chimp was also known has Ham the Astrochimp. He was born in 1956 or 1957 and became the first chimpanzee to go into space on the 31st January 1961, as part of America’s space program.

His name was acronym for the lab that prepared him for his historic mission – the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Ham was born in Cameroon and was captured by animal trappers and sent to Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida. He was purchased by the United States Air Force and brought to Holloman Air Force Base in 1959.

Originally there was 40 chimpanzees flight candidates at Holloman. The number of candidates was reduced to 18, after evaluation. Ham was officially known as No. 65 before the flight. He was renamed Ham upon his successful return to Earth. Reportedly this was because the officials did not want bad press should the chimpanzee have died and that a named chimpanzee would mean the mission was a failure. Amongst his handlers, No. 65 was known as Chop Chop Chang.

Ham was three-years-old when he started his training at the beginning of July 1959, under the direction of neuroscientist, Joseph V Brady at Holloman Air Force Base Aero Medical Field Laboratory. His training consisted of doing simple timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds. In his pre-flight training, Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. If he failed to do so, he received an application of a mild electric shock to his soles of his feet. If he got it correct he was rewarded with a banana pellet.

On 31st January 1961, Ham was secured in a Project Mercury mission labelled MR-2 and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a suborbital flight. His vital signs and tasks were monitor using computers on Earth. During the flight, the capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure but Ham’s spacesuit prevented him from suffering any harm. He was just a fraction slower doing his lever-pushing tasks than he was on Earth. This demonstrated that tasks could be done in space. The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered later that day by a rescue ship. Ham only suffered a bruised nose after his 16 minutes and 39 seconds long flight.

After his flight Ham lived for seventeen years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC, before joining a small group of captive chimps at North Carolina Zoo.Ham died in 1983, and after his death his body was turned over to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for necropsy.

Following this necropsy it was planned to have him stuffed and displayed at the Smithsonian, but the plan was abandoned after negative public reaction. His remains, minus the skeleton, were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The skeleton is held in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.