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February 14, 2022

Historic Photographs Capture the Training of Ham the Chimp and Other Astrochimps in 1961

Well before the USSR launched the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957, and obviously long before the U.S. put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Americans and Soviets used animals to test the rigors and dangers that humans might face in outer space. Mice, rhesus monkeys, dogs—all sorts of creatures blasted off from the surface of the Earth strapped atop rockets and locked in test planes. Many suffered injury; not a few of them died.

Ham and his cohorts were picked for the Mercury program over other hominids (gorillas and orangutans) because they were smaller and could fit in the Mercury capsule and also because “chimpanzees have physical and mental characteristics similar to man,” as LIFE pointed out in its Feb. 10 1961 issue.

The most famous of the Mercury chimps, due to his landmark January 1961 flight, Ham was not publicly called Ham when he went into space. That name—an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center—was only widely used when he returned safely to earth.

The training of Ham and other astrochimps was a scaled-down version of the human astronauts’. After curing them of jungle diseases and parasites, a special corps of veterinarians … kept track of their skeletal development by periodic X-ray exams, and gave them regular heart, muscle, and ear-nose-and-throat check-ups.

All are pre-adolescents amenable to teaching. All are active, bright, and light in weight — some flunked out of the program by growing to over 50 pounds in weight. While America relied on chimps and other primates—rhesus monkeys, for example—as suborbital test subjects in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets commonly used dogs.

The astrochimps were not trained to “pilot” space capsules, but instead to perform routine tasks during suborbital flights, and to act, in the most elemental way, as test subjects facing little-known physical and psychological perils ahead of their human counterparts in the Mercury program and beyond.

Ham the astrochimp after his historic 1961 suborbital flight.

The rocket sled at Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

An astrochimp in training, 1960.

A hug and a pat were exchanged in a moment of fond reassurance.

An astrochimp in training.

A chimp was strapped into a “couch” rigged with all manner of monitoring equipment during a test prior to Ham’s January 1961 flight.

An astrochimp in training, 1960.

An astrochimp learned to press buttons in order to reward himself with banana pellets, 1961.

An astrochimp learned to handle equipment at Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

Astrochimps in training, 1960.

An astrochimp in training at Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

Ham, the astrochimp, seemingly mugging for the camera, 1961.

An astrochimp in training at Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

A chimp and a handler looked at X-rays during Mercury training at Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

Astrochimps and their handlers, Holloman Air Force Base, 1960.

An astrochimp at Holloman Air Force Base, 1961.

An astrochimp at Holloman Air Force Base, 1961.

Astrochimp, 1960.

Astrochimps, 1960.

Ham the astrochimp, 1961.

Ham the astrochimp and his handler, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1961.

Ham the astrochimp, 1961.

Ham the astrochimp after his 1961 suborbital flight.

Ham the astrochimp was escorted by a human friend after his suborbital space flight, January 1961.

A Mercury space capsule carried Ham the astrochimp into space on Jan. 31, 1961. His flight lasted 16 minutes and 39 seconds.

(Photos: Ralph Morse/Life Pictures/Shutterstock)




2 comments:

  1. Wait... you mean they didn't do motility factors on the chimps? That's not fair.

    ReplyDelete



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