HAM the Chimp
Yuri Gagarin lost out to a chimp.
The Soviet astronaut who was the first man in space actually was the second upright hominid to make the jaunt. First place went to a 37-and-a-half-pound, well-tempered chimpanzee named HAM. He went into space January 31, 1961, as an integral part of NASA’s Project Mercury and spent what was no doubt a harrowing 16 minutes 36 seconds there before splashing down in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.
“By the time the recovery choppers showed up to lift the craft out of the waves, it was on its side, filled with so much water they had a sputtering, choking, near-drowned chimp on their hands,” wrote astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Malcoln McConnell in Men From Earth.
HAM was a survivor, however. Born in July 1956, he was caught by trappers in his native Cameroon and sent to a farm in Florida. The U.S. Air Force bought the chimp three years later and took him to Holloman Aerospace Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he was used to study how animals might handle space exploration. He was named after the center—an acronym that also fit his personality.
His space days behind him, HAM spent the rest of his life at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the North Carolina Zoo. After he died in 1983, his remains were sent back to Alamogordo and were interred at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. His marker reads, “HAM proved mankind could live and work in space.”