Primate Rescue Center

Ham the Astrochimp: Hero or Victim?

Erika Fleury December 18, 2013

Last week, I had the great privilege of meeting primatologist Dr Jane Goodall. (I am writing a profile of her for the Wellcome Trust’s exciting new online life science magazine Mosaic, due to launch in the new year). In our conversation we briefly touched on the life of Ham, a chimpanzee who has interested me for several years. Goodall’s dismay at Ham’s treatment has caused me to reconsider how his story should be told.

If you’ve never heard of Ham, he was one of hundreds of experimental animals unwittingly enrolled into NASA’s Project Mercury, a programme that sought to put a (hu)man into space. Shortly after he was born in 1957, in what was then French Cameroons, the US Air Force engaged collectors to source some chimps from the native forest. Three years later, more than a dozen animals flew from Africa to the US, entering into what was referred to as the “School for Space Chimps” at the Holloman Air Force Base in Alamagordo, New Mexico.

One of them – subject 65, aka Ham (Holloman Aerospace Medical Center) –was head of the class. He was fit, was comfortable being strapped into his “couch” and quickly learned the lever-pushing tasks required of him. “He was wonderful,” recalled his handler Edward Dittmer for a book entitled Animals in Space. “He performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle. I’d hold him and he was just like a little kid.”

photo courtesy of NASA

In early 1961, Ham and the next five most promising primates were flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida to prepare for an experimental flight. The purpose of this mission, according to a NASA press release issued on 28 January 1961, was to provide “a check of the craft’s environmental control and recovery systems” and “a first test of the functioning of the life support system during an appreciable period – nearly five minutes – of zero gravity.”

With just days to go, Ham got the nod. Dressed in a nappy, waterproof pants and spacesuit, fitted with sensors to monitor his heart rate, breathing and body temperature during flight, his handlers strapped him into a capsule that would sit inside the nosecone of the Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket.

When MR-2 took off on 31 January 1961, Goodall was in Africa, where she had recently started her research project on chimpanzees in what was to become Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. When, later on, she saw the footage of Ham recorded during his sixteen-minute ordeal and photographs taken upon recovering his capsule, she was horrified. “I have never seen such terror on a chimp's face,” she told me.

When I first met Ham in 2007, he’d been dead for a quarter of a century. After his space flight, he spent almost 20 years alone at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. before being moved to North Carolina Zoo where there was a small colony of captive chimps. When he died in 1983 at the relatively young chimp age of 25, there was disquiet at the idea that his skin might be stuffed and put on display at the Air and Space Museum. “Talk about death without dignity,” ran a leader in the Washington Post. “Talk about dreadful precedents – it should be enough to make any space veteran more than a little nervous about how he is going to be treated in the posthumous by and by.”

A letter filed away in the Smithsonian Archives (in a folder of Ham-based correspondence), summed up the public mood: “By treating his body like that of a stupid beast, people will continue thinking of apes as stupid beasts, and not the intelligent, almost human animals they really are,” wrote a sophomore at West High School in Painted Post, New York. As a result of this kind of outcry, the US Air Force (to which Ham still belonged) agreed to bury him at the International Space Hall of Fame at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. But they kept his skeleton for its “scientific value”.

This is all that remains of him, a disarticulated set of bones carefully laid out in a drawer behind the scenes at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in a northern suburb of Washington D.C.

Ham was the first primate in space, exiting earth’s atmosphere some ten weeks ahead of Soviet pioneer Yuri Gagarin and over three months before Alan Shepard. When I have written about Ham in the past, I have tended to portray him in this way, as the subject and hero of the story, an animal whose journey I have used to capture the excitement of the human race for space. He does this well. But having spoken to Goodall, I realise it is more appropriate to render Ham differently, not as subject and hero but as object and victim, his life and afterlife a reminder of the ways in which humans are prepared to exploit those around us in pursuit of our own ambitions.

NASA’s portrayal of Ham tends towards the heroic. Footage taken within the capsule during flight is usually edited, showing a relaxed and apparently happy Ham. You can see the unedited film here (in which he is clearly extremely distressed at around 2:12), but I cannot find this on NASA’s website. It should be there right? Am I missing something?

- The Guardian

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