On this day in history, Ham the Chimp was blasted into space for a 16 minute flight by NASA.
Ham (August 1956? - January 19, 1983), also known as Ham the Chimp and Ham the Astrochimp, was the first hominid launched into outer space. Ham's name is an acronym for the lab that prepared him for his historic mission--the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
In December 1960, the four-year-old chimpanzee was trained to do simple, timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds. In his pre-flight training, Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light; failure to do so would result in an application of positive punishment in the form of a mild electric shock to the soles of his feet, while a correct response earned him a banana pellet. After all of the training, it was time to find out whether he could function under the stress and pressure that comes with space travel. What differentiates Ham's mission from all the other primate flights to this point is that he was not merely a passenger, and the results from his test flight led directly to the mission Alan Shepard would make on May 5, 1961 aboard the Freedom 7.
On January 31, 1961, Ham was secured in a Project Mercury capsule labeled MR-2 and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, into outer space. Ham had his vital signs and tasks monitored using computers back on Earth. The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham's space suit prevented him from suffering any harm. Ham's lever-pushing performance in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating that tasks could be performed in space. Ham's capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by a rescue ship later that day. He only suffered a bruised nose. His flight was only 16 minutes and 39 seconds long.
Ten months later, another chimp, named Enos, successfully orbited the earth. This was several months after Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight, but before US astronaut John Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Mercury's Friendship 7.
After the flight, Ham lived for 17 years in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., then at the North Carolina Zoo before dying at the age of 27 on January 19, 1983. Ham appeared repeatedly on television, as well as on film with Evel Knievel.
Ham's backup, Minnie, was the only female chimp 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 offspring of several other members of the chimpanzee colony. She was the last surviving astro-chimp. She died at age 41 on March 14, 1998. Minnie is buried next to Ham at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Ham was mentioned at the end of the movie "Race to Space".