It was called the Space Race, a competition between two world powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, on who would achieve significant advances in spaceflight capability. By the early 1960s, the Soviets were winning by achieving the first successful launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, and the first man in space with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Of course, it would only be a matter of time until the U.S. peaked and won this rivalry by putting humans on the surface of the moon in 1969. But it wasn’t as simple as building some rockets, strapping people aboard, and shooting them up into the sky. There was a lot of testing involved to see if man could even withstand the challenges that spaceflight had in store. And this testing often involved animals.
Alan Shepard was the first American in space and it was with the help of a four-year-old chimp known then as No. 65 that this achievement was possible.
The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States began in the mid-50s when the Americans announced they’d be launching satellites into space. The Soviets responded in kind by saying they’d be doing the exact same thing. What followed was a back-and-forth exchange of who could do a certain milestone first. Who could get the first satellite into space; who could put the first man into orbit; who could put the first man on the moon?
Testing was required for each milestone. Failures and successes of any measure were marks on the official ledger as far as each superpower was concerned. So, before any human was sent up through the atmosphere, an animal would first serve as a stand-in. The Russians and Americans had sent up fruit flies, dogs, rabbits, and mice. All of these animals had died until the Russians successfully returned two dogs, Belka and Strelka, from Earth’s orbit in 1960.
But as these dogs were on their mission, another test subject was being prepped for his own flight by the Americans: a chimpanzee known only as No.65; however, to his handlers he was affectionately–yet, unofficially–known as Chop Chop Chang. And it would be this little chimp that would pave the way for Alan Shepard’s first American space flight.
Born in 1957 in the French Cameroons, No.65 would find himself captured by animal trappers. From there he would spend a brief spell at a rare bird farm in Miami before being purchased by the United States Air Force in 1959. He was one of 40 chimps being groomed for a spaceflight mission.
These 40 chimps would eventually be whittled down to 18.
Then, only 6.
Finally, just a day before launch the final chimp was selected.
The process of deciding which chimp would go into space came down to several factors.
They were all tested to see if they could be trained to pull certain levels and push certain buttons when lights came on and sounds occurred.
Failure to do the correct procedure in accordance to the light or sound resulted in a mild shock to the foot.
Success granted the chimp with a banana pellet and sip of water.
There was still some question about which chimp would be launched, but it was the day before that No.65 exhibited a certain degree of playfulness and a positive mood that set him apart.
It was decided. No.65 would be the final subject.
No.65 had his own little space suit, his own little space couch, and his own little space module.
He was launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 31, 1961 as part of the Project Mercury mission. It would be a suborbital spaceflight for No.65. His vital signs would be monitored from Earth. He would perform the same routines he’d been tested on. These motions and reactions would be timed to see how the chimp’s brain responded within its new environment.
The launch was successful and almost everything went according to plan. Everything except for a brief period when the cabin pressure was lost. But No.65’s spacesuit kept him alive. During these 16 minutes and 39 seconds, No.65 pulled the levers in accordance to the lights and sounds. It was discovered that his reaction time was only slightly slower than before. This was a good thing though, proving that humans could also perform tasks while in space.
No.65 ended his mission by splashing down in the Atlantic where he was successfully recovered. He was in good health with only a small bruise to his nose and a case of slight dehydration.
But the end of the mission brought something else.
Upon his return he was no longer known only as No.65. He was given a proper name: Ham.
Some say he was named in honor of the commander of Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton “Ham” Blacksheer. But others suggest the name was simply after the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center for where he received his training. In any case, the name No.65 was retired for a more proper name. Why did they avoid giving him a name in the first place? Well, it’s mostly due to public perception. If a properly named chimp died in an unsuccessful mission, the reaction would be more emotional and look far worse. Saying something to the effects of “test subject number 65 perished in a suborbital attempt” doesn’t quite have the same emotional impact.
Ham was safely back on Earth and appeared to be in good spirits. He even shook hands with the people that rescued him, accepted an apple as a treat, and remained in a positive attitude for his return home.
He would go on to live another 17 years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. before retiring to an even better lifestyle at the North Carolina Zoo.
Ham became famous after his spaceflight. He was in all the papers, made the cover of Life magazine, had songs written about him, and was even the inspiration for books and movies.
After his death he would be turned over to the Armed Forces Institute and given a military funeral, eulogized by Colonel John Stapp.
His skeleton is held on collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and his remains were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame.
Ham’s mission was a test flight for what would become Alan Shepard’s historic flight–the first American in space. He was no longer a number; he was a national hero.
You can see a nine-minute video of Ham’s training and spaceflight below.