On the morning of January 31, 1961, in south Florida, a 5-year-old chimpanzee — dubbed “Ham” by his handlers — ate a breakfast of baby cereal, condensed milk, vitamins and half an egg. Then the unassuming 37-pound primate went out and made aeronautic history: Aboard a NASA space capsule, traveling thousands of miles an hour almost 160 miles above the Earth, he became the first chimp in space.
The success of Ham’s flight helped ratchet up even further the already frantic contest for scientific and space supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and briefly made Ham something of a star.
Well before the USSR launched the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957 — effectively freaking out virtually the entire Western hemisphere — and decades before the U.S. put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969, Americans and Soviets used animals to test the rigors and dangers that humans might face in outer space. Mice, rhesus monkeys, dogs — all sorts of creatures blasted off from the surface of the Earth strapped atop rockets and locked in test planes: many suffered injury; not a few of them died.
Ham and his cohorts were picked for the Mercury program over other hominids (gorillas and orangutans) because they’re smaller — and thus could fit in the Mercury capsule — and because, more importantly, “chimpanzees have physical and mental characteristics similar to man,” as LIFE pointed out in its Feb. 10 1961 issue.
The most famous of all the Mercury chimps, due to his landmark January 1961 flight, Ham was actually not publicly called Ham until after the flight succeeded. The name by which he’s now known — an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center at the Air Force base — was only widely used when he returned safely to earth; NASA reportedly wanted to avoid bad publicity should a named (and thus a known, publicly embraced) animal be killed; all the Mercury chimps were known by numbers.
The astrochimps were not trained to “pilot” space capsules, but instead to perform routine tasks during suborbital flights, and to act, in the most elemental way, as test subjects — facing little-known physical and psychological perils — ahead of their human counterparts in the Mercury program and beyond.
Ham lived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C, after the flight, then the North Carolina Zoo, where he died at age 26 in 1983. His brief pop culture celebrity (he appeared in a film with Evel Knievel, for example) paled beside the significance of his achievement as NASA’s first astrochimp. A short three months after Ham’s 1961 flight, astronaut Alan Shepard piloted the Mercury capsule on his own historic, 15-minute suborbital space flight, and was feted with ticker tape parades in New York and Washington.
“Alan Shepard was a hero, no doubt about that,” Ralph Morse says today. “But whenever people call Shepard the first American in space, I like to remind them of a chimpanzee who beat him to it.”
Credit: Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com