AT THE NEW MEXICO MUSEUM OF SPACE HISTORY, in Alamogordo, visitors leave bananas on the gravestone of Ham the Astrochimp as a tribute to the first great ape who was launched into space. “Before an American went to space, it was a chimpanzee that really paved the way,” says Michael Shinabery, the museum’s education specialist. “Ham proved mankind could live and work in space.” Concerned about the environmental effects of space and extreme heat of reentry on the human body, NASA scientists began considering other options for spaceflight testing and trained 40 chimpanzees at Holloman Air Force Base, in Alamogordo. Known as No. 65 or Chang before his flight, Ham (an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center) launched on a suborbital test mission as a part of Project Mercury on January 31, 1961. The 16 ½-minute flight ended early when the rocket’s fuel ran out, but Ham was safely recovered at sea, more than 130 miles away from the landing area.
In 1963, Ham retired from NASA and lived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., before moving to the North Carolina Zoo, where he died in 1983 at the estimated age of 26. Ham’s skeleton, which was studied for the effects of spaceflight, resides at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Silver Spring, Maryland, while the rest of his remains are interred at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. “If it hadn’t been for the chimpanzee,” Shinabery says, “maybe some of the other folks whose names roll right off of our tongues wouldn’t have had the same opportunities they did.”