The Explainer General
But on January 31, 1961, we were ready to send our first astronaut into space on a long, high arc. He was only three feet tall. His name was Number 65. (If the rocket blew up, a “named” animal would sound bad in the news . . ) When asked by radio, 65 would press sequences of buttons on the flight control panel, then receive a banana pellet reward.
The blast off from Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) wasn’t perfect. The Redstone rocket didn’t blow up, but the launch damaged the passenger pod’s hull. Also, the controls didn’t shut off on time and pushed the rocket much higher, much faster than planned. Ham traveled at 5,800 miles an hour, and reached a then-record high of 155 miles! This put his reentry landing far beyond the U.S. Navy ships sent to retrieve him. The pod splashed into the ocean, but water poured into the damaged pod. 65 was sinking! Two hours later a helicopter picked up the passenger pod just in time.
65 was a hero, so he was given a proper name: Ham. He appeared on the cover of magazines and newspapers as our first man—er, chimp— in space!
In only a few months human astronauts followed Ham’s lead. Alan Shepard and John Glenn rocketed into space and Ham was forgotten. He was given to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived for 17 years, alone. He was trained as an astronaut and didn’t get along with jungle animals. His keepers noticed that he often lay on his back and punched in imaginary button sequences, as if he were still flying the capsule. The old chimponaut became lonely and depressed.
Ham was sent to a special “show animal” camp where he could reconnect with his wild brothers and sisters. He was taken to Andrews Air Force Base for the trip. As he was walked across the concrete something wonderful happened. He passed between two lines of Air National Guard pilots, saluting Ham. Ham the brave Chimponaut finally got his honor parade.
Ham lived 3 happy years at the camp and died peacefully in 1983. You can see a plaque for Ham at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. It says:
He proved that mankind could live and work in space.