I took the kids to see Space Chimps today and it was a great movie, both for the kids as well as myself. However, being the history addict that I am, I immediately came home and started doing a little research on the use of chimpanzees in the space program in the latter part of the Fifties and early Sixties….
Far from the easy-going, surburbian utopia that is thought about today, America in the late Fifties was a worried nation. The Cold War was center stage and “The Bomb” as well as host of other problems had displaced any complacency remaining from World War II. This national self doubt extended as well to the frontiers of space.
America could just not compete with the hordes of white-smocked Soviet scientists and engineers who kept launching success after success. Sputnik was up, while America’s series of “Flopniks” became a symptom of our inabilities to compete. The average American, it seemed, was more interested in the TV schedule than hard science and space flight.
To counter this, Project Mercury kicked off the beginning of the manned space program for the United States. With uncharted, unfamiliar territory, this was no easy task to accomplish. Could man survive space flight? Would the outer limits tear him to bits? How could the precise flights be calibrated?
While the initial astronauts chosen for Project Mercury were some of the most talented that could be found, the facts remained that a whole lot was unproved…and untested. In the book, We Seven, John Glenn said this:
“…There were so many unknown problems involved in (Project) Mercury and so many ‘firsts’ to be accomplished, that no one could be certain, when the project first began, just how it would come out…” (3)
More data was needed. Even though the talented Von Braun and his team as well as other companies were confident in the rocketry and associated systems, more testing was necessary before human flight could be obtained.
They chose a chimp! But why? Well according to experts:
“…Intelligent and normally docile, the chimpanzee is a primate of sufficient size and sapience to provide a reasonable facsimile of human behavior.  Its average response time to a given physical stimulus is .7 of a second, compared with man’s average .5 second. Having the same organ placement and internal suspension as man, plus a long medical research background, the chimpanzee chosen to ride the Redstone and perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission should not only test out the life-support systems but prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry….”(5)
Being named after the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, Ham became the celebrity of the age. Well trained through hundreds of hours of lab testing and retesting, Ham proved a willing subject for NASA.
His flight, MR-2, was scheduled and launched. While in space, Ham diligently worked the experiments that he had been trained with. Even with problems of reentry and excessive high-G levels, the flight was labeled a success and Project Mercury development (and flight) proceeded.
There is lots more detail to this story than I can present here, so remember to check the links below for more details on Project Mercury as well as Ham. It’s a great story and one well worth remembering in today’s ho-hum atmosphere of Shuttle launches and unmanned space exploration vehicles.
Have a great day!
Little Joe, Ham, and the Liberty Bell (my old blog)
MR-2: Ham Paves The Way. Part of This New Ocean (see link below)
(3) Carpenter, M. Scott. We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962. Pg 106-107.
(5) Ham Paves The Way. Part of This New Ocean (see link above)