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Ham the Chimpnaut

Updated on December 6, 2017

Ham (1956 - 1983) was a wild-born chimpanzee ultimately acquired by the United States Air Force. His actual date of birth is unknown. He was still nursing when captured and so was somewhere between two and four years old. Ham was one of dozens of young chimps captured in Africa for use in the American space program and selected from a group of six offered for the program.

Chimp in Space

In 1961 Ham was sent into space in the mercury capsule. His mission lasted just over sixteen minutes and returned to earth with a splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. By reaching an altitude of 157 miles Ham had become the first ape in space. (A claim disputed by the Russians who deemed the flight 'sub-orbital').

Ham had been weightless for over six minutes, and performed his tasks (such as pulling levers on command) dutifully. His successful return to Earth was an important step towards humans going into space. During flight he performed the Operant tasks he had learned during training.*

The first animal in space was Laika the dog (1957) and the first Russian and American human astronauts went into space later in 1961.

Upon his return the young chimp went from being just chimp number sixty-five, to Ham the Chimpnaut (Astrochimp or "Space Chimp"). Ham was an acronym of "Holloman Aerospace Medical center". This was the center where he was trained for his space mission.

Ethical Issues

Articles on Ham's flight seldom mention the reason why he pulled his lever on cue throughout the flight. Not just because he received a treat for completing the task, but because he received an electric shock if he was not quick enough.

A six-year-old Ham meets Sonny Elliot (1962)
A six-year-old Ham meets Sonny Elliot (1962)

The Zoo Years

In 1963 Ham moved to the National Zoo, and finally in 1980 he was relocated to the North Carolina Zoo where he could live with other chimpanzees. He died three years later at the age of approximately twenty-five or twenty-six.

Final Resting Place

Ham's skeletal remains are held at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His cremated soft tissues are buried at the International Space Hall of Fame where it is marked by a bronze plaque.

Monkeys in Space

Other space programs continue to use use primates in space vehicle development, including Iran (2013). Although some questioned whether the flight occurred as the pictures before and after the alleged flight showed different monkeys.


* Belleville, Richard E., Frederick H. Rohles, Marvin E. Grunzke, and Fogle C. Clark. "Development of a complex multiple schedule in the chimpanzee." Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior 6, no. 4 (1963): 549-556.

Should primates be used in space?

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