On the morning of January 31, 1961, a 5-year-old chimpanzee named “Ham” ate a breakfast of baby cereal, condensed milk, vitamins, and half an egg. Then the playful 37-pound primate went out into the Cape Canaveral light and made aeronautic history: Aboard a NASA space capsule — traveling almost 160 miles above the Earth — he became the first chimp in space.
The launch’s success helped ratchet up even further the already-frantic contest for scientific supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and briefly made Ham something of a star. Five decades after that momentous, 16-minute “headlong trip through outer space’s underbelly” (as TIME characterized Ham’s flight), LIFE presents rare and previously unpublished photographs taken before, during, and after Ham’s wild ride — pictures that capture an era when technology, politics, ideology, and propaganda converged in an era-defining struggle known as the Space Race.
(Photographed by Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)