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January 31, 1961: First Ape in Space

53 years ago today, Ham the Chimp travels into outer space aboard Mercury-Redstone 2. Ham was the first ape to fly into space and was one of the first animals to survive being launched. Russian predecessor, a dog named Laika, had not been quite so lucky when she orbited the earth in 1957.

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Other animals had been launched on spacecraft before, but Ham was an active participant rather than “primate cargo.” What differentiates Ham’s mission from all the other primate flights to this point is that he was not merely a passenger, and the results from his test flight led directly to the mission Alan Shepard made on May 5, 1961 aboard Freedom 7.

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In his pre-flight training, Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. 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 was originally from Cameroon in Africa and had been a popular attraction at a zoo in Florida before he was recruited by the United States Air Force. His name was taken from the initials of the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center in New Mexico, where he was housed.

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After Ham was launched almost immediately there was a hitch. The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham’s space suit prevented him from suffering any harm as levels began to drop. For six minutes Ham was weightless before the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic.

The famous "hand shake" welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury

The famous “hand shake” welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury

When rescuers reached it, they found him alive and gratefully accepted an apple and half an orange. He later went to live at the National Zoo in Washington for 17 years and died at North Carolina Zoo at the age of 25.

An older wiser Ham in Washington

An older wiser Ham in Washington

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