Chimps in Space
In April 1959, Project Mercury, the first United States human spaceflight program, initiated a project in which chimpanzees would be trained for space flight, and used as surrogates to test the rockets, capsules, and pilot performance and endurance prior to a US astronaut being launched into space. Chimpanzees would not be the first living beings used to test equipment and survivability; the US and Russia had used flies, mice, monkeys and dogs in space flight tests since the late 1940s. However, the chimps would end up being among the most famed non-human travelers into space.
NASA and the US Air Force started with a pool of 40-65 young chimpanzees who had been captured in Africa, their mothers shot and killed as the infants clung to their bodies. These young chimps, the same age and developmental stage as a human toddler, were forced to train for the rigors of space flight at Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB) in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The chimps were trained by being strapped to a chair and taught to press a series of levers in response to colored light cues. Correct performance would result in a banana pellet reward; incorrect performance would result in an electric shock to the foot. They also endured tests that subjected them to high speeds, extreme G-forces, and other physical conditions that they would experience during space launch. At least six chimpanzees were considered to have “the right stuff” and were brought to Cape Canaveral, Florida in early January 1961 to prepare for launch. The top three candidates were Ham, Enos, and Minnie; the names of the other candidates are apparently lost to history.
On January 31, 1961, 4-year-old Ham was strapped into a tiny capsule, placed aboard a Mercury Redstone rocket, and launched to an
altitude of 157 miles at a speed of 5857 mph. He flew for 16.5 minutes, and upon reentry he splashed down hundreds of miles off course. When he was recovered, a “grinning” Ham was photographed in the arms of his handler. The grin was interpreted to the public as a sign of happiness, but in truth, Ham’s facial expression is a sign of extreme fear and distress in chimpanzees. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shephard, Jr. completed a similar suborbital flight, becoming the first US astronaut. Ham was eventually sent to the National Zoo, where he lived alone for 17 years before finally having the opportunity to live amongst other chimpanzees at the North Carolina Zoo. He died on January 17, 1983 at the age of 26.
On November 29, 1961, 5-year old Enos was launched into orbit aboard a Mercury Atlas rocket. Scheduled for three orbits of the Earth, he completed only two. He was brought back to Earth due to malfunctioning systems, including his reward/punishment system. For every correct lever move he made, Enos received an electric shock rather than the expected banana pellet. However, Enos knew what he was supposed to do, and continued to manipulate the levers correctly, despite the frequent electric shocks. Enos endured this for more than 3 hours of flight. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn followed in Enos’ path, becoming the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth. A week later, John Glenn received a well-deserved ticker-tape parade. Enos, on the other hand, was sent back to his cage at HAFB and died less than a year later of dysentery.
Minnie and the other remaining “space chimps” never flew in space and were never honored for their involuntary contributions to human space exploration. They and their descendents became biomedical research test subjects, used for additional space-related experimentation, disease research, toxicology experiments, experimental surgeries, and breeding for the next four decades. In 1997, the Air Force announced it was getting out of the chimp research business, and put its chimpanzee colony up for bid. The Air Force had an opportunity to retire over 140 chimpanzees to sanctuary, including Minnie. However, the Air Force denied retirement to most of the chimps, and they were turned over to The Coulston Foundation, a biomedical research lab with multiple Animal Welfare Act violations. Minnie herself died at the lab March 14, 1998 at the age of 41.
Save the Chimps, under the direction of Dr. Carole Noon, had petitioned the Air Force to turn over its chimpanzee colony to their custody. STC offered to provide permanent retirement to the space chimps and their descendents on cage-free island homes in Florida. When the Air Force denied the petition, Dr. Carole Noon sued the Air Force on behalf of the chimpanzees. Dr. Noon and STC settled out of court for custody of 21 Air Force chimps, who arrived at Save the Chimps in 2001. Some, like Marty, had been used in experiments directly related to space flight. Others, like Lil Mini', Minnie’s last child, were descendents of those chimps captured in Africa over 40 years before. Today the surviving chimps are living out their lives on a spacious island in the Florida sunshine.
For additional information on all non-human animals used in space flight, please visit http://history.nasa.gov/animals.html