Chimpanzees in Space

This week marks the 50th anniversary of human’s first steps on the moon. While we reflect on that milestone, it is important that we remember those who went first. Long before a human boarded a rocketship launched into space, dogs, monkeys and chimpanzees went before them–most notably, Ham and Enos.

The First Chimpanzees in Space

Ham was the first chimpanzee launched in space on January 31, 1961. His story was lauded in dramatic US Newsreels. What the news reels don’t tell you is this: in his game of “levers and lights,” Ham is receiving shocks on his feet for incorrect responses. During flight, this little 3-year-old child experienced unexpectedly high G-forces. During reentry, those who know chimpanzee behavior can see a very distressed facial expression — evident in this video. The mission was scheduled for 18 minutes from launch to landing but the capsule was lost and Ham was inside for a total of 3 hours. In the scenes after the capsule is opened, we can seek Ham seeking reassurance. The voicing says he was completely contented, but shortly after, we can see a very scared chimpanzee.

Five-year-old chimpanzee, Enos was next. He was the first chimpanzee to orbit the Earth, all while connected to catheters and monitors sampling his body fluids and blood pressure. During flight the capsule began to wobble, so Enos only completed two of the three planned orbits. That wasn’t the only malfunction. Like Ham, he played the “levers and lights” game but a malfunction in the equipment shocked him for correct responses instead of incorrect responses. (Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 29, 2011.)


Enos, the first chimp to orbit Earth


While human astronauts were paraded as heroes throughout their lives, the same cannot be said for the space chimps. Enos died of dysentery 11 months after his orbit. Ham lived alone at the National Zoo from 1963–1980. Transferred to the Charlotte Zoo, he died three years later at 26 years of age.

Chimpanzees in Research

The US Air force used many chimpanzees to pave the way for chimpanzees and humans in NASA’s space program. The 1950’s and 1960’s were full of crash test dummy tests, physical trauma, head crashes, windblasts, and ejection from aircraft at supersonic speeds. Later, funding included other research into reproduction, drug testing, neurology, social isolation, noise, and diseases like HIV, polio, hepatitis, and malaria. Many of these chimpanzees were retired to Save The Chimps, a sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, FL. Today, chimpanzees still remain at Alamogordo Primate Facility at Holloman Air Force Base.

Fauna Foundation works with other groups to advocate for the chimpanzees that remain in US government laboratories. Please consider making a donation to Fauna to support our advocacy work for all chimpanzees to see sanctuary.

Fauna Foundation

The Caregiving & Support Team at Fauna

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