Almost Human: Astrochimp Number 65

January 31, 1961. After travelling 156.5 miles up and 414 miles downrange, the sealed capsule crashes into the Atlantic Ocean and is left floating on its side. Inside the capsule he is still alive; the suit and straps have kept his body intact. Only his nose is bruised. He waits for the helicopter crewmen to find the capsule, three hours later it is hoisted to safety on the recovery ship.

Peering out of the transparent panel, his dark brown eyes gaze at the sky. As the lid is removed, he grins at the commander and offers his hand. No words are exchanged, although there is much to be spoken of: the launch, crushing speeds, weightlessness, 16 minutes in space, re-entry, crash landing. No words are exchanged as the astronaut is a chimpanzee.

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What were the animal realities of Number 65? The African-born chimpanzee (1956–1983) was taken from the wild at a young age. Captured in Cameroon, he was traded and sent to the USA. After spending his infancy captive in Florida, he was bought by the US Air Force. He and dozens of other astrochimp candidates underwent years of forced training at the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center (HAMC). As ‘best of the bunch’, Number 65 was chosen to board the Mercury-Redstone 2 spacecraft to ensure future manned missions would be safe.

With his experience, Astrochimp Number 65 gained the distinction of being the first primate in space, beating the first human, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, by ten weeks.

LIFE With the Astrochimps: Early Stars of the Space Race
LIFE cover, Feb. 10, 1961. Ham the Chimpanzee in the space capsule after returning from the Mercury Redstone 2 space flight.

Renamed ‘HAM’ (an acronym from Holloman Aero Medical) the triumphant chimpanzee became a star. In retirement, the famous ‘American hero’ was ‘pampered’ at the National Zoo in Washington DC, then North Carolina Zoo.

Taken, traded, numbered, trained, tested, chosen, secured, launched, isolated, scared, recovered, named, celebrated. Astrochimp Number 65. An animal experiment. An almost human explorer.

(Adapted from ‘Space Race’ in The Nature Magpie by Daniel Allen)

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