50th anniversary of first ape in space

January 31, 2011

 Ham, the chimp

It’s time to order up a Banana Daiquiri and cheer the memory of one of the most impressive apes in the history of scientific exploration.

On January 31st 1961, a three year old chimpanzee from West Africa named Ham flew aboard a Mercury Redstone rocket and became the first ape in space. Ham reached an altitude of 157 miles and experienced several minutes of weightlessness before his descent back to earth.

At the time, NASA was in a race with the Soviets to get the first man into space and Ham’s mission was integral in making sure the trip would be safe. His flight paved the way for NASA’s first manned space flight by astronaut Alan Shepard just four months later on May 5th. Unfortunately for NASA, the Soviets got there first when they launched Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12th.

We talked with NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry about Ham and his role in the space race. He began our discussion by describing what we knew about space travel at that time.

Also, check out this old newsreel that documents Ham’s journey.

Ham succeeded in his mission for NASA and went on to retirement. He lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and then the North Carolina Zoological Park until his death in 1983. 

Ham

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