Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ham the Astrochimp

Ham the Astrochimp was the United States’ first pre-astronaut in space. I knew that. But reading Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men, I learned how tough a job it was.

January 31, 1961: Mercury-Redstone 2 took off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-5 carrying three-year-old Cameroonian pilot Ham (aka “#61”), who had been trained by Holloman Air Force Base at White Sands with carrots (banana pellets) and sticks (electric shocks to the soles of the feet). For those who believed NASA was ready to launch human beings, this mission upended that hope. First the training system in the capsule went haywire, administering to Ham repeated electric shocks, even while he was perfectly executing his chores. The capsule was supposed to travel at 1,970 meters per second; instead, it raced along at 2,298. An abort call was made, which yanked the retro rockets, but Mission Control could not slow the capsule for reentry. Then a snorkel valve lost its pin, and the cabin lost its pressure—but since Ham was in his own spacesuit, he was unharmed. He also seemed unharmed by being subjected to just under 15 g’s, instead of the 11 that was expected. On splashdown, the heat shield punctured the capsule, and between the holes it made and the broken valve, by the time the navy hauled the Mercury out of the sea, it had taken on eight hundred pounds of water and was sinking fast.

After recovery, Ham got an apple and an orange for surviving his mission, but tried to bite anyone who dared draw near; as the mission log noted, “Sometime later, when he was shown the spacecraft, it was visually apparent that he had no further interest in cooperating with the space flight program.”

Ham subsequently went into retirement, spending his remaining 22 years in zoos. He has a Wikipedia page.

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