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(source: Marshall Space Flight Center's Marshall Image Exchange)

Fifty years ago yesterday, donning a custom ape spacesuit, a chimpanzee named Ham was catapulted beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Competing with the Soviet Union’s space program, NASA rushed to launch an animal into space before sending astronauts. Too bad Yuri Gagarin beat them to it.

Ham went up anyway in a Mercury Redstone Launch vehicle, where he came back down into the Atlantic after 16 minutes.

Ham, after landing (source: Great Images in NASA)

Ham wasn’t alone, though. Between the United States and Soviet Union, a handful of animals made the unknowing journey to space (or didn’t make it, sadly), including all of the rhesus macaques named “Albert,” Belka, Strelka and Laika — stray dogs from Russia, and Ham and Enos the chimps. Of course, this list isn’t complete, but it gives you an idea of which animals were used.

Mary Roach‘s recent book Packing for Mars details some of these experiments wonderfully. Some have happy endings, others don’t. She even visited Ham’s supposed grave in New Mexico. In case you’re wondering, Ham died later in life — a happy and chubby chimp.

Roach also points out that some astronauts (namely, John Glenn) were angry at NASA for sending nonhuman primates up first. Thinking chimps didn’t serve a purpose, Glenn thought Ham unjustly stole the spotlight. He wanted nothing to do with the primates.

Au contraire, Mr. Glenn.

Ham, who had no clue (really) where he was headed, inadvertently ensured the safety of these astronauts who followed. The question is: Would I launch animals into space today? Probably not. But it disheartens me to hear that some of these space legends bashed their primate brethren — animals with no idea of what was going on.

If veteran astronauts won’t say it, I will.

This banana’s for you, Ham.


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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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