Ham (chimpanzee)

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Ham the chimp (cropped).jpg
Ham in January 1961, before his suborbital flight into space
SpeciesCommon chimpanzee
BornJuly 1957
French Cameroon
DiedJanuary 19, 1983(1983-01-19) (aged 25)
North Carolina Zoo, North Carolina, U.S.A
Resting placeMuseum of Space History New Mexico
Known forFirst hominid in space

Ham (July 1957 – January 19, 1983), a chimpanzee also known as Ham the Chimp and Ham the Astrochimp, was the first Great Ape launched into space. On January 31, 1961, Ham flew a suborbital flight on the Mercury-Redstone 2 mission, part of the U.S. space program's Project Mercury.[1][2]

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.[3][4]

Early life[edit]

Ham was born in July 1957 in French Cameroon (now Cameroon),[5][6] 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.[5]

There were originally 40 chimpanzee flight candidates at Holloman. After evaluation, the number of candidates was reduced to 18, then to six, including Ham.[7]: 245–246  Officially, Ham was known as No. 65 before his flight,[8] and only renamed "Ham" upon his successful return to Earth. This was reportedly because officials did not want the bad press that would come from the death of a "named" chimpanzee if the mission were a failure.[9] Among his handlers, No. 65 had been known as "Chop Chop Chang".[10][9]

Training and mission[edit]

Launch of Ham's mission, January 31, 1961

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[1][12]: 314–315  Ham's vital signs and tasks were monitored by sensors and computers on Earth.[13] The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham's space suit prevented him from suffering any harm.[12]: 315  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.[12]: 316  Ham's capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by the USS Donner later that day.[12]: 316  His only physical injury was a bruised nose.[13] His flight was 16 minutes and 39 seconds long.[14]

The results from his test flight led directly to the mission Alan Shepard made on May 5, 1961, aboard Freedom 7.[15]

Ham is greeted by the commander of the recovery ship after his flight

Later life[edit]

On April 5, 1963, Ham was transferred to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived for 17 years[7]: 255–257  before joining a small group of chimps at North Carolina Zoo on September 25, 1980.[16]

After his death on January 19, 1983, Ham's body was given to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for necropsy. Following the necropsy, the plan was to have him stuffed and placed on display at the Smithsonian Institution, following Soviet precedent with pioneering space dogs Belka, and Strelka. However, this plan was abandoned after a negative public reaction.[citation needed] Ham's skeleton is held in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland,[6] and the rest of Ham's remains were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Colonel John Stapp gave the eulogy at the memorial service.[17]

Ham's backup, Minnie, was the only female chimpanzee trained for the Mercury program. After her role in the Mercury program ended, Minnie became part of an Air Force chimpanzee breeding program, producing nine offspring and helping to raise the offspring of several other members of the chimpanzee colony.[7]: 258–259  She was the last surviving Astro-chimpanzee and died at age 41 on March 14, 1998.[7]: 259 

Cultural references[edit]

  • Ray Allen & The Embers released the song "Ham the Space Monkey" in 1961.
  • Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff depicts Ham's spaceflight,[18] as do its 1983 film and 2020 TV adaptations.
  • The 2001 film Race to Space is a fictionalized version of Ham's story; the chimpanzee in the film is named "Mac".[19]
  • In 2007, a French documentary made in association with Animal Planet, Ham—Astrochimp #65, tells the story of Ham as witnessed by Jeff, who took care of Ham until his departure from the Air Force base after the success of the mission. It is also known as Ham: A Chimp into Space / Ham, un chimpanzé dans l'espace.[20]
  • The 2008 3D animated film Space Chimps follows anthropomorphic chimpanzees and their adventures in space. The primary protagonist is named Ham III, depicted as the grandson of Ham.[21]
  • In 2008, Bark Hide and Horn, a folk-rock band from Portland, Oregon, released a song titled "Ham the Astrochimp", detailing the journey of Ham from his perspective.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Chimp survives 420-mile ride into space". Lewiston Morning Tribune. Idaho. Associated Press. February 1, 1961. p. 1.
  2. ^ "Chimp sent out on flight over Atlantic". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. UPI. January 31, 1961. p. 1.
  3. ^ Swenson Jr., Loyd S.; Grimwood, James M.; Alexander, Charles C. (1989). "This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury". NASA History Series. NASA Special Publication-4201. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
  4. ^ Brown, Laura J. (November 13, 1997). "Obituary: NASA Medical director Hamilton 'Ham' Blackshear". Florida Today. Retrieved November 10, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Gray, Tara (1998). "A Brief History of Animals in Space". National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved May 12, 2008.
  6. ^ a b Nicholls, Henry (February 7, 2011). "Cameroon's Gagarin: The Afterlife of Ham the Astrochimp".
  7. ^ a b c d Burgess, Colin; Dubbs, Chris (January 24, 2007). Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle. Springer-Praxis Books in Space Exploration. ISBN 978-0-387-36053-9. OCLC 77256557.
  8. ^ Hanser, Kathleen (November 10, 2015). "Mercury Primate Capsule and Ham the Astrochimp". airandspace.si.edu. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Archived from the original on May 20, 2018. Retrieved May 20, 2018.
  9. ^ a b Haraway, Donna (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge. p. 138.
  10. ^ "Chop Chop Chang Commemorative Patch (HAM the Astrochimp)". Retrorocket Emblems. Archived from the original on May 20, 2018. Retrieved May 20, 2018.
  11. ^ House, George (April–June 1991). "Project Mercury's First Passengers". Spacelog. 8 (2): 4–5. ISSN 1072-8171. OCLC 18058232.
  12. ^ a b c d e Swenson Jr., Loyd S.; Grimwood, James M.; Alexander, Charles C. (1966). This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. NASA History Series. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. OCLC 00569889. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  13. ^ a b Zackowitz, Margaret G. (October 2007). "The Primate Directive". National Geographic. Archived from the original on November 12, 2007. Retrieved April 30, 2008.
  14. ^ "NASA Project Mercury Mission MR-2". National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  15. ^ Burgess, Colin (2014). "The Mercury flight of chimpanzee Ham" (PDF). Freedom 7. Springer. pp. 58–59. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-01156-1_2. ISBN 978-3-319-01155-4.
  16. ^ "Ham the astrochimp: hero or victim?". The Guardian. December 16, 2013.
  17. ^ Roach, Mary (2010). Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Norton. pp. 160–163. ISBN 978-0393068474.
  18. ^ Wolfe, Tom (March 4, 2008). The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 178. ISBN 9781429961325.
  19. ^ Foundas, Scott (March 14, 2002). "Race to Space". Variety. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  20. ^ Kerviel, Sylvie (July 13, 2007). "Ham, un chimpanzé dans l'espace". Le Monde (in French). Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  21. ^ Space Chimps at AllMovie
  22. ^ For Melville, With Love, by Ezra Ace Caraeff, August 14, 2008, Portland Mercury

Further reading[edit]

  • Farbman, Melinda; Gaillard, Frye (June 2000) [2000]. Spacechimp: NASA's Ape in Space. Countdown to Space. Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7660-1478-7. OCLC 42080118. Brief biography of Ham, aimed at children ages 9–12.
  • Rosenstein, Andrew (July 2008). Flyboy: The All-True Adventures of a NASA Space Chimp. Windham, Maine: Yellow Crane Press. ISBN 978-0-9758825-2-8. A novel about Ham and his trainer.
  • Burgess, Colin; Dubbs, Chris (January 24, 2007). Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle. Springer-Praxis Books. ISBN 978-0-387-36053-9. Book covering the life and flight of Ham, plus other space animals.

External links[edit]