Stories of Chimpanzees

Stories of Chimpanzees


Ham, an unwilling Air Force recruit
Photo: Courtesy of NASA

Ham, whose name was an acronym for Holloman Aero Med, was captured in July 1957 from the French Cameroons, West Africa, shortly after his birth. He would have witnessed the killing of his mother and several if not all of the adults in his group—an inevitable scenario to capture a baby from them. He was brought to Holloman Air Force Base in 1959.

In 1963, this celebrated chimpanzee was allowed to “retire” from research and was transferred to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he lived alone, for 17 years, despite the highly social nature of his species. He was then moved to the North Carolina Zoo. He died three years later at the age of 26—approximately half the expected lifetime for a captive chimpanzee. His treatment during space research and missions and his “retirement” into circumstances more for the viewing U.S. public than for his own best interests are tragic examples of science’s moral neglect.

Space Chimps: History of the Air Force Chimpanzees


Where no man has gone before

On January 31, 1961, the first “chimponaut,” a three-year-old named Ham, rocketed into space in a Mercury Redstone rocket. Ham was NASA’s involuntary space pioneer who was forced to go where no human had gone.

Despite the celebrity that followed, this was no volunteer mission. Ham had to be restrained to teach him to remain still for long periods in the coffin-like capsule. Today, we know that some of the methods used by the United States Air Force to train chimpanzees included straight jackets, neck rings, and four-limb restraints. Electric shocks were used to teach him how to operate the control panels. Many other chimpanzees were trained for spaceship operation, but only two, Ham and Enos, were actually sent into orbit.

During Ham’s descent, technical problems led the capsule to overheat and plunge into the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles off course from the recovery ship. Water began to seep into Ham’s capsule. Fortunately, he was rescued.

News photos following Ham’s successful flight showed a “smiling” chimpanzee among his human peers at NASA. But a demonstration designed to show the press how much Ham enjoyed his capsule was a failure. As cameras rolled, four adult men could not get Ham to reenter his space capsule, even though he had been trained that his refusal would result in painful electric shocks.

Ham’s so-called “smile” was a fear grimace, which looks similar to a human smile. Indeed, the famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall noted that he was the most terrified chimpanzee she had ever seen. Yet the truth behind Ham’s so-called smile was rarely, if ever, discussed in the media that covered this event. Rather, they continued the public deception that “all was well.” In fact it could not have been more dangerous or cruel for the young chimpanzees “enlisted” into the space program.

Enos: doing the right thing

In addition to Ham, five-year-old Enos also went into space, orbiting the earth twice, five months after Ham’s flight. Enos’ flight was terminated prematurely after an equipment malfunction:

Due to a malfunction inside the capsule, Enos was given an electric shock for every correct maneuver he made, a reward-punishment system that contradicted over a year of training. Rather than alter his behavior, Enos endured the shocks and performed the flight tasks he knew were right.

Read more about Ham, Enos and other chimpanzees in the space program.



Space Chimps: History of the Air Force Chimpanzees

NASA Archives,

One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps, produced by Kristin Davy and D. James Cassidy in conjunction with The Documentary Institute at the University of Florida (2002)

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