Ham the Astrochimp: Another National Zoo Celebrity

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While researching the history of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, I have discovered that it had a few celebrity residents that were not giant pandas. I have already introduced you to Smokey Bear, but while Smokey called the zoo home, another celebrity, also with a New Mexico connection, became his neighbor on Connecticut Avenue in 1963—Ham, the first chimpanzee in space.

When Ham arrived at the National Zoo, he was a retiree at only six years old, but those first six years of his life were quite an adventure. Born in 1957, Ham was captured by trappers in present-day Cameroon, West Africa, and brought to the (now-defunct) Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida. In 1959 he was purchased by the U.S. Air Force and transferred to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to become a participant in space flight research. Ham joined about 40 other chimpanzees who were already part of the program. As yet unnamed, the chimp was referred to as #65 during his training. (The chimps were not given names so that humans did not become as attached to them in case of a tragedy during testing.)

Animals—mostly dogs, monkeys, and chimpanzees—had been used by Americans and Russians to test the effects of prolonged weightlessness for more than a decade before Ham arrived at Holloman. Many of these trial runs led to injury or death. In June 1948, a rhesus macaque named Albert I was launched into space in a V-2 rocket over White Sands, NM, but died during flight. In September 1951, Yorick became the first monkey to survive a space flight (but succumbed a few hours after the event at Holloman AFB). In May 1952, two Philippine macaques named Patricia and Mike survived a flight of 36 miles above earth, which was too short to be considered a space flight, but it was a successful mission. I particularly highlight this pair because Patricia and Mike “retired” to the National Zoo in 1954; Patricia died two years later, and Mike died in 1967—both of natural causes. The same year that Ham arrived at Holloman AFB (1959), a rhesus macaque named Sam completed a successful 53-mile flight in the Little Joe 2 rocket as part of Project Mercury, the same program for which Ham trained. Now it was #65’s turn to make history.

Sam the rhesus macaque. Photo: NASA

During their training at Holloman, the basic job of the chimpanzees was to make sure humans could survive the rigors of space flight. The training, under the direction of a neuroscientist, involved pulling levers in a specific sequence after receiving colored light cues. If the correct lever was not pulled after five seconds, the chimps were subjected to a light shock on bottom of their feet. The correct response earned them a treat of banana pellets. The entire training duration was spent strapped in a special contoured chair (or “couch”) while wearing a nylon suit and diaper. The same tasks were to be performed during the actual flight to make sure humans could perform such tasks while under the stress of orbit. The chimps, like humans, were also exposed to g-forces and microgravity to simulate space flight.

Over time, chimpanzees were weeded out of the program (down to 18 and then to 6) as physically or mentally unfit, but two-year-old Ham’s extreme intelligence and calm demeanor helped him complete the sixteen-month training and pass all (frequent) medical evaluations. (At the age of two, most chimpanzees would still be a nursing infant dependent on their mothers, so it’s important to keep in mind how young Ham was during this intense training.) “Ham, especially, was a very friendly fellow,” recounted one photographer for Life magazine. “Those were great assignments, shooting the early years with NASA. You really got the sense that these were incredibly smart ‘people’ just working their tails off to do something that had never been done before.”

Intelligent and normally docile, the chimpanzee is a primate of sufficient size and sapience to provide a reasonable facsimile of human behavior. Its average response time to a given physical stimulus is .7 of a second, compared with man’s average .5 second. Having the same organ placement and internal suspension as man, plus a long medical research background, the chimpanzee chosen to ride the Redstone and perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission should not only test out the life-support systems but prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry.  —NASA, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury

Ham with his trainers
Ham with his trainers in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the final month of his training took place. Photo: NASA

(For an excellent collection of photos of Ham during his training period, see Burgess 2014.)

Ham, now three years old and 37 pounds, was ultimately chosen over the remaining six chimps to take part in the Mercury-Redstone (MR-2) flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1961. He was not selected until the day of launch, as NASA’s Space Task Group, with the assistance of veterinarians, wanted to choose the most mentally and physically fit chimp on that day.

After Ham had already been strapped in the capsule for five hours on the launchpad, the actual flight lasted over 16 minutes (with over 6 minutes of weightlessness) and traveled 127 miles above the earth at a peak of 5,857 miles per hour. Ultimately, it is amazing that Ham survived, as the flight did not go as planned. There was a partial loss of pressure, although Ham’s spacesuit kept him safe, among other mishaps. Through those 16 minutes, Ham still performed his lever-pulling tasks as he was trained to do, proving that under extreme stress he (and ultimately humans) could think and react normally. When returning back to Earth the capsule was blown off course and ended up landing in the ocean 130 miles from its target location. It took another several hours for the capsule to be recovered. (Other events occurred during the flight and landing that put Ham’s life in severe danger. For a detailed account, see Burgess 2014.)

The original flight plan called for an altitude of 115 miles and speeds ranging up to 4,400 mph. However, due to technical problems, the spacecraft carrying Ham reached an altitude of 157 miles and a speed of 5,857 mph and landed 422 miles downrange rather than the anticipated 290 miles. —NASA, A Brief History of Animals in Space

When Ham was finally rescued, he was reported to be in good condition, wearing a “grin” and vocalizing lightly (which more than anything probably meant that he was confused and afraid, not necessarily happy). He was examined right away, and the veterinarian determined that he was only fatigued and dehydrated, while sporting a slight bruise on his nose. He immediately devoured an apple, so clearly his appetite was unaffected. According to officials who were with him post-flight, Ham did not show any visible signs of extreme displeasure until he was met with hoards of media flashing cameras in his face.

am receiving his apple after flight
Ham receiving his apple after flight, January 31, 1961. Photo: National Archives

After becoming the first chimpanzee in space, the extremely brave #65 was officially given the name Ham, an acronym for “Holloman Aero Medical,” the facility where he completed his training. The success of the test flight paved the way for the launch of Freedom 7 a few months later (May 5, 1961), the historic flight that made Alan Shepard the first American in space.

After spending a few days under further medical examination, Ham was flown back to Holloman AFB, where he would spend the next two years undergoing testing for any residual effects from his experience in space. He was finally cleared to retire in 1963 as a six-year-old hero. (It was rumored that NASA wanted to train him for a second flight, but when he was presented with the couch again he fought to avoid being strapped in.)

Arriving at the National Zoo on April 5, it doesn’t appear that he was greeted with the same local fanfare as Smokey Bear, which might come as a surprise given his celebrity status and the national importance of the Space Race during the Cold War. He joined four other chimpanzees at the zoo but lived in a separate 10′ x 14′ enclosure. According to the 1963 Smithsonian Annual Report, “He seems to have adjusted nicely to his comparatively quiet routine in the Zoo’s ape quarters.” A 1964 story in the Washington Post, however, paints the chimp as living a lonely life. An eight-year-old girl had written a letter to the editor lamenting Ham’s living conditions and requesting that Ham be given a mate: “He was so lonesome looking, he made me cry.” The reporter interviewed the zoo’s director, who stated that they tried to place a female (next-door neighbor, Maggie) with Ham, but he did not respond in the way that the zoo was hoping (meaning he did not mate with her.) The zoo planned to place another female, Lulu, a three-year-old, with Ham once she became sexually mature; however, Ham never had any offspring while at the National Zoo, so that arrangement seems to have “failed” as well. After 17 years in DC, he was transferred to the North Carolina Zoo in 1980, where he lived the rest of his life with other chimps.

Ham at the National Zoo in 1972
Ham at the National Zoo in 1972. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Sadly, it doesn’t sound like Ham lived a very stimulated and satisfying life at the National Zoo. Of course, we need to remember how different zoo habitats and animal welfare missions were during the 1960s as opposed to now. We also do not really know how much the years of training and the traumatic space experience had on him. Additionally, after spending his life in the company of humans, he might not have related to other chimpanzees as well. I can only imagine what measures the current primate keepers would have undergone to ensure this amazing, intelligent chimp had lived a happy, healthy, fulfilling life in DC.

Ham passed away at the North Carolina Zoo on January 19, 1983, at the age of 26, of an enlarged heart and liver failure. After the Air Force performed examinations on it, his skeleton was preserved and is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. The rest of his remains are buried beneath a plaque memorializing him at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Ham memorial
Ham memorial at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico

The immense stress that Ham and the rest of the “Air Force chimps” endured did not go unnoticed. In an obituary to Ham the Washington Post notes that “It was not known whether the chimpanzee would survive the shocks and rigors of the [space] trip. And it was widely supposed that even if he did survive, he would have been severely impaired emotionally—rendering him a simpering idiot—scared out of his wits. There was much criticism of the mission on this cruel account.” Buzz Aldrin, encouraging retirement for the space chimps, stated that the astronauts owe an “enormous debt” to the space chimpanzees. “They, and their descendants, have served us in so many ways—initially as substitute humans in space research. Now it is time to repay this debt by giving [them] the peaceful and permanent retirement they deserve.”

The plight of the space chimps spurred Dr. Carole Noon into action. With the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall, and after years of legal battles with the Air Force, Noon established the sanctuary Save the Chimps in 1997 to serve as a peaceful retirement home for the Air Force animals. Initially awarded 21 chimps, her sanctuary has served as a home for hundreds of others. As Dr. Noon once said, “They have bravely served their country. They are heroes and veterans.” Check out the sanctuary’s story at https://www.savethechimps.org/.

Historic footage of Ham:


Blakeslee, Alton. “Chimp Healthy After Space Ride.” Washington Post, February 2, 1961: A6.

Burgess, Colin. “The Mercury Flight of Chimpanzee Ham.” chapter 1 of Freedom 7: The Historic Flight of Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (Springer, 2014), pp. 29–64. Available at https://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9783319011554-c1.pdf

Casey, Phil. “Astronaut Chimp Shuns Maggie, So Zoo’l Bring Lulu.” Washington Post, April 29, 1964: C1.

Cosgrove, Ben. “LIFE With the Astrochimps: Early Stars of the Space Race.” Time, November 20, 2013. http://time.com/3456378/life-with-the-astrochimps-early-stars-of-the-space-race/

Ham (chimpanzee). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ham_(chimpanzee)

“Ham Finds a Home.” Washington Post, April 5, 1961: A4.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “A Brief History of Animals in Space.” https://history.nasa.gov/animals.html

North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Astrochimp Ham’s Retirement Years in Asheboro.” https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2016/09/25/astrochimp-hams-retirement-years-in-asheboro

North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Beloved North Carolina Zoo Chimp Passes Away.” https://www.ncdcr.gov/beloved-north-carolina-zoo-chimp-passes-away

“One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps.” http://www.spacechimps.com/theirstory.html

Price, Bem. “Chimp Safe After Ride on Rocket into Space.” Washington Post, February 1, 1961: A1.

“The Right Stuff.” Washington Post, January 21, 1983: A16.

Save the Chimps. “Ham, the First Chimpanzee in Space.” https://www.savethechimps.org/the-chimps-history/ham-space-chimp/

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1954. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1954smit

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1963. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1963smit

Smithsonian Institution Archives. Chronology. “Ham, Astronaut Chimpanzee Comes to NZP.” https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_sic_841

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Mercury Primate Capsule and Ham the Astrochimp,” November 10, 2015. https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/mercury-primate-capsule-and-ham-astrochimp


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