The First Rocketman Wasn’t a Man
On January 31, 1961, a disturbingly inexperienced astronaut stepped into the cockpit of the Mercury Redstone 2 rocket and took off for parts unknown. By every measure, he was an unusual but inspired choice to be the ‘first’ in space. Although the launch represented the culmination of years of planning and training, the U.S. Space Program was still in its infancy, and in that respect, there were no experienced candidates. Other than what could be spied through the lens of a telescope, we knew little about space travel and less about what went on above the earth or what mankind should do when he or she got there. For everyone, including the daring young astronaut, this was terra incognita
But while he might have been particularly young, he wasn’t unimpressive. The astronaut went by the nickname ‘Ham,” which was fitting because it was an acronym for the Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory where he did his training, but it also recalled the legendary flight instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton “Ham” Blackshear, with whom he had a warm father-son relationship and taught him everything he knew about space.
Ham and the other 40 space program cohorts represented the cream of the crop, the country’s most talented young males.* But certain qualities set him apart that his space flight instructors didn’t see very often: incredible reflexes, a legendary calm demeanor, a tolerance for G forces, and an ability to perform rote commands endlessly without complaint. That was the quality they valued most; the word complaint was not in his vocabulary.
Ham’s technical function aboard the MR2 rocket was simple compared to the complexity of modern space travel. He had to push a single lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. And while that was all he was required to do, if he failed he received an electric shock in the soles of his feet. If he produced the correct response, he was given a banana pellet. You may be shocked to learn of this and it seems cruel and unusual by today’s standards, as well as bizarre if not inhumane. Therein lies a clue to our astronaut’s identity. Ham was a four-year-old chimpanzee. Technically, we should call him an astrochimp.
At 11:55 pm, Ham took off from Cape Canaveral on that blustery, sunny winter day. His flight traveled 422 nautical miles around the earth in a little over 16 minutes, where he reached a maximum altitude of 157 miles. The success of Ham’s mission was so spectacular it led directly to Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 launch on May 5, 1961.
The capsule aboard the Mercury Redstone 2 had innovations never before seen in a spacecraft, including an environmental control system, which today we call air conditioning, a closed-loop sensing system, and a landing bag, the forerunner of today’s airbags.
A successful flight is not an easy one. Ham was subject to a 6-G acceleration force, and momentary exposure to 17-G as rockets fired on the spacecraft’s escape system. Tolerances vary for G acceleration because the body is flexible and what the scientists call “deformable,” like what happens when a middle-aged man tries on a suit not worn since college.
For instance, a hard slap on the face is equal to hundreds of G forces but only for a second. Continued and constant 16 g for an extended period can be deadly. Fortunately for Ham, his spacesuit protected him from the pressure, and the only physical injury was a bruised nose. Ham experienced weightlessness for 7.5 minutes during the flight, the first time anyone had done so in space.
The capsule touched down at 12:12 pm. Recovered at 2:52 pm within 60 miles of the recovery ship, nearly 800 pounds of seawater had entered the capsule. Ham was in excellent condition, with no discernible symptoms from the flight, and as he got on board, he smiled and shook the commander’s hand.
Ham was born in 1957 in the country of French Cameroon, and early in his life, he was kidnapped and “sold” to a group in Miami, Fl., There, he came to the attention of the trainers at the U.S. Airforce, who prepared him for outer space travel.
*Ham’s backup, Minnie, was the only female chimpanzee trained for the Mercury program. After her role in the Mercury program ended, Minnie became part of an Air Force chimpanzee breeding program, producing nine offspring and helping to raise the family of several other members of the chimpanzee colony.