The Space Program will likely be recognized as one of the most important and memorable accomplishments of the 20th Century. Many believe that when historians look back, this period will be remembered as the time when man first reached the stars and expanded the world beyond the confines of earth. Most remember Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Gus Grissom. But few know many of the details of the early steps taken to make their historic missions more than just a dream.
Before man ever rode the space ocean, there were chimps. And even before chimps there were other primates, mice, fruit flies, and other assorted creatures. But that's a whole other story for another day. These early pioneers may not be remembered like their human counterparts, but their contributions paved the path to the stars and made manned space exploration a reality. What follows is their long journey. What follows is some long overdue recognition to some American heroes. What follows is the story of man's closest relative's contributions to the study of space, their fate, and a story that doesn't have an easy, happy, Hollywood ending.
This is the story of the space chimps and their incredible journey. This story has been played with on television and the big screen. But fiction can't convey the incredible reality of this story. It is not just about a couple of chimps who were sent up in a rocket. No, this is a story about Africa, New Mexico, the Cold War, Florida, President Kennedy, the Mercury Astronauts, the space program, and more. This is the beginning of what President Kennedy called the "...most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked." Well, chimps went first and this is their story. This is One Small Step:The Story of the Space Chimps.
Chapter One: In the Beginning
Many of the early details about the space program are a bit fuzzy. There are a number of factors for this; people didn't know the importance of the work they were doing, they took the materials as souvenirs to either sell or keep, the materials were destroyed because they were believed to be unimportant, or certain things just weren't recorded efficiently. Needless to say this makes the early parts of this story difficult to tell. By the mid-fifties this gets a bit easier and the details provided will reflect this.
To begin this story we need to jump to New Mexico and the desert near Alamogordo. Alamogordo is home to two of the most important sites for the development of the United States Space Program: White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base. It was here that the initial tests took place. The earliest set of primate flights is what we will call the Albert series. The Alberts were monkeys, all of whom met unfortunate fates. They flew on V-2 rockets and in each of the four missions either the parachute didn't deploy or they died due to heat exhaustion after being lost somewhere in the desert. In a moment that summed up these early attempts at launching and recovering a biological payload, a technician at White Sands Missile Range scrawled the words "Alas poor Yorich I knew him well" on one of the fins to Albert I's V-2. Judging by the results, it seems like someone had a strong premonition of things to come.
While White Sands was taking care of the rocket launches, Holloman Air Force was using chimps in g-force research. The first question that needs to be asked is where did the chimps come from? The U.S. actually sent an expedition to Cameroon, Africa to get some baby chimps to train. Some stories claim the expedition was quite brutal and that the mothers were killed to get their babies. This is hard to confirm, but the story has survived through the oral history. There were two systems used for this; the Daisy sled and the rocket sled. The rocket sled was much faster and much more dangerous. They would load the chimps into a chair or capsule, blast them off, and then stop them in about 2 seconds using a water brake system. To say the least, not every chimp that rode the sled came out alive. It was also at Holloman that the chimps began their training for rocket flight. Both Ham and Enos were trained here and later launched at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It wasn't until May 21, 1952 that White Sands successfully launched and recovered a living biological payload. The capsule carried two rhesus monkeys and two mice into the upper atmosphere and provided the Air Force with evidence that primates and other living creatures could survive such a trip.
Chapter Two: Project Mercury
It was on October 1, 1958 that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created. On November 26, Project Mercury was announced. Project Mercury was to be a "man-in-space program." While it was President Eisenhower who signed the legislation to create NASA, it would be his successor who would thrust it to it's prominence. President Kennedy stated on many occasions that he believed the space program would be among his administrations most important legacies.
This site is about the primate flights, but most didn't fall under Project Mercury (please go to the section "Primate Missions" for more on those flights). Before the Mercury 7 astronauts would be determined, NASA was using animal astronauts in Project Mercury launches. The first Project Mercury animal launch came on December 4, 1959. The rhesus monkey Sam was launched on the Little Joe II. His mission was a success and he was successfully recovered.
Sam would be the only primate launched during Project Mercury until 1961. But what was going on behind to scenes would prove to be most interesting. The chimps brought back from Cameroon were shipped to Holloman Air Force Base for training. It was in New Mexico that they would be prepared for space. It is said that the chimps were subjected to training that their human counterparts couldn't have completed. In his book "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe speaks about the terrible abuse these chimpanzees were subjected to. They would spend hours sitting in chairs and hitting levers. One article announced that the chimps were difficult to train because they were so much like humans.
It is here that we must consider the ethical questions being raised and the inconsistencies that are obvious. We choose chimpanzees, man's closest living relative, as test subjects because they are so much like us. We justify their use in experimentation based on the idea that they are so similar. We train them like humans, dress them like humans, and basically humanize them as best as possible. But then we say they aren't human so we can do what we like with them. This seems a bit inconsistent. We can say that they are different because they share only 98.6% of the same DNA structure. It could also be said that there is only a 1.4% difference.
The past can't be changed, so we should recognize the contributions of these chimpanzees and monkeys. In addition, we need to question whether history should repeat itself as it seems to be doing.
To say the least, their training was tough. But with their training complete, the next step for the space chimps was to take place in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The stage was now set for the U.S. space program to take a big step towards the goals of Project Mercury.
Chapter Three: One Small Step
The stage was now set for the space program to move forward with their goal of putting a man in space. Before a man would be permitted to fly, NASA decided a chimp would ride the space ocean. HAM, which stands for Holloman AeroMedical, a 37 pound 3-year old chimpanzee from Cameroon was selected to fly a Mercury-Redstone in a sub-orbital flight. HAM was said to be a smart, loveable chimp with a good temperament. His positive personality is said to be one of the main reasons he was chosen for flight. You can note that in most pictures his arms are not bound.
After all his training, it was time to find out whether he could function under the stress and pressure that comes with space travel. What differentiates HAM's mission from all the other primate flights to this point, is that he was more than a passenger. HAM had tasks to complete and for the correct response he earned a banana pellet, for a wrong response he got an electrical shock.
On January 31, 1961 HAM was launched. The fuel in this rocket burned off too quickly and he was propelled about 122 miles further than planned. He also experienced speeds up to 14.7 g's, about 3.3 g's more than planned. His capsule made a rough landing downstream. The impact upon hitting the ocean surface made his capsule begin to take on water. HAM was rescued in time and showed no ill effects from his flight. It is said that the press wanted photos of HAM in his couch. But when he was shown the flight couch again after the flight, he fought to avoid being strapped in.
With the flight a success, HAM became a cause for celebration. He landed all over the press, on the cover of Life Magazine, and in the newsreels. The Mercury astronauts were apparently pleased that he suffered no ill effects despite his fast ride. This gave them some assurance for the safety of their flights. Alan Shepard would make the same flight on May 5, 1961 aboard the Freedom 7.
The next primate flight would take place on November 29, 1961. This would be the final primate mission of Project Mercury. Enos, a five year old chimpanzee, was selected. Enos was considered to be temperamental and a bit on the mean side, the electrical shocks could have had something to do with this.. But he was considered very intelligent and for this reason he was selected to make an orbital flight aboard a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Compare Enos' photos with those of HAM. Enos is usually being held tightly or tethered.
Enos was successfully launched after a number of delays due to inclement weather. He was scheduled to make three orbits of the Earth, but had to be brought back after two. His Mercury capsule malfunctioned and for every correct move he made he was given a shock instead of a banana pellet. Despite the discomfort he experience, Enos continued to make the correct moves. He splashed down in the Atlantic after more than three hours of flight, 181 minutes of which were in weightless conditions.
Enos received a welcome home similar to HAM's. He made headlines, but nothing like John Glenn would make after his orbital flight. In a mission similar to Enos', Glenn orbited the earth in the Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. Glenn became an instant celebrity, as did all the Mercury astronauts. In his speech to Congress, Glenn said he was humbled when he met Caroline Kennedy and her first question was "Where's the monkey?"
Caroline's question was rather appropriate. After Glenn's flight, the age of the space chimp was over and they were left to the history books. The answer to what happened to the space chimps is one that spans 40 years and is still being debated today.
Chapter Four: After Space, Their Legacy
What became of HAM, Enos, and the rest of the Holloman space chimp colony? Each of their fates would prove to be very different. Unfortunately, not all have a happy ending.
HAM was held in service by the Air Force until 1963. It was at this time that he was sent to the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC. HAM would prove to be a popular attraction. His celebrity status was remembered, but this didn't help him with the other chimps. Due to his training and his being socialized by humans, HAM couldn't relate to other chimpanzees. On a couple different occasions the zoo attempted to find him a mate, but these attempts proved unsuccessful. In the early 1980's he was transferred to the North Carolina State Zoo. It was here that he was finally able to be joined with chimps in a manner that he could handle. Unfortunately, just as he was making progress, he died 1983 at the age of 27. He had spent less than two years in North Carolina. A debate ensued about what to do with his remains. Among the options, was to have him stuffed and put on display. In the end, the Air Force kept his skeleton for research purposes and the remainder of his body was laid to rest at the front of the New Mexico Museum of Space.
The story of what happened to Enos is a shorter one. After his successful flight, Enos came down with an infection and would die a couple of months after his mission. It is said that his death was in no way caused by his space mission. What became of his remains is a mystery to me.
The story of what happened to the remaining chimp colony at Holloman Air Force base is a bit longer and to give a shortened version; they were passed off from medical research facility to medical research facility and were subjected to a variety of tests. A good number of the descendents of the original colony, as well as some of the original colony members, are still held in such facilities. There are still efforts today to see them retired to sanctuary for the service they performed in the development of American space exploration.
HAM, Enos, and the other chimps were integral in the development of the U.S. space program. The data obtained from their missions was important in making manned space travel a reality. There is still a debate today as to whether the remaining space chimps deserve to be retired. For what they've done, I would say yes. So would a variety of others. Buzz Aldrin put it quite eloquently when he said that the astronauts appreciate "the enormous debt we owe the space chimpanzees. They, and their descendants, have served us in so many ways--initially as substitute humans is space research. Now it is time to repay this debt by giving these veterans the peaceful and permanent retirement they deserve."
Chapter Five: Where Are They Now…
With the space chimp colony no longer needed, the Air Force began leasing them to medical labs in the 1970s. The chimps spent time in New York and at New Mexico State University. Then, in 1997, the Air Force announced that they would be "retiring" the space chimps forever. To the Air Force, "retirement" meant giving the chimps to a medical testing facility for further experimentation.
Being a government entity, the Air Force had to follow certain protocol. First they declared the chimps "surplus" and then opened them up for bid. The Air Force proceeded to award the chimps to a biomedical testing facility, The Coulston Foundation. The bid process came into question and it became evident that the Air Force had little intention to consider any other facility. A bit of outrage ensued due to The Coulston Foundations track record of abusing chimps. Over the years, USDA investigations found them negligible and at one point confiscated 300 of their chimps due to poor care. The first round was voided and a second round of bids were taken. Many people in government and former astronauts asked for these chimps to go to sanctuary. They didn't want to see the Air Force make the same mistake twice.
It was now that Dr. Carole Noon, who with the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Fouts, would try to see these chimpanzees to sanctuary. The Air Force denied her bid on the basis that she didn't have a facility built yet. Instead the Air Force again awarded a bulk of the chimps to The Coulston Foundation. In what they felt was a show of good faith, the Air Force sent 30 of the remaining chimps to a sanctuary in Texas.
While some thought the story ended there, Dr. Noon felt differently. Operating under her belief that captive chimps deserve something better than a life in a lab, she took action. Noon sued the Air Force for custody and raised funds to build a sanctuary in Florida. After a year long court battle, Dr. Noon was awarded custody of 21 of the space chimps. Some of whom were members of the original colony. Today, she operates the Save the Chimps Sanctuary. It is a place where these chimps can enjoy the outdoors and a life free of testing. The remaining members of the colony remained in a lab. In the spirit of persistence Dr. Noon outlasted The Coulston Foundation and has since taken control of their facilities. The remaining chimps are growing accustomed to time outdoors and preparing for full retirement to the expanded Florida Sanctuary.