The space race was one of the key battlegrounds during the Cold War. And as the space race became ever more important during the 1950s and 1960s, chimps became a key part of the US space program. Andrew Walls explains.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

The era of the spacefaring chimp

The era of the rocket monkeys was a confusing one. Both for the chimps themselves and for those working towards the eventual moon landing. The Cold War was in full swing and the American and Soviet space programs were battling for ideological supremacy. The Soviets had just sent two dogs, Belka and Strelka, up into the Earth’s orbit and had touched them down safely.

The American public wanted a similar milestone for the American space program. So when Ham touched down in the Mercury capsule the public treated him not like a research animal and more like a “short, hairy astronaut”. Gifts and flowers began arriving for Ham. People wanted his autograph. He was one of those golden age American heroes that made people weep with pride.

This didn’t thrill Alan Shepard, who was to go up following Ham’s safe return to prove its safety for humans. Neither really piloted the craft. They both just sat there and let the guys on the ground prove the flights were safe. Alan Shepard in short wasn’t thrilled with this monkey stealing his thunder and reasonably chose not to attend the furry American hero’s funeral some years later.


Space Chimps Made In America

Albert was the first chimponaut to be launched into space. The term launched is right because they strapped him to a V-2 rocket and let him suffocate during the flight. Albert ll, his successor, was killed when the V-2 rocket he was strapped to had a parachute failure. During this suicidal flight Albert ll became the first monkey in space after passing the Karman line of 100km above sea level. In fact the first Albert to survive the landing was Albert Vl, who along with his 11 mouse crewmates touched down safely. However, once they touched down, the monkeys weren’t finished yet.

Next came the battery of medical tests which ascertained what impacts, if any, weightlessness and other phenomena of space travel had on them. They wisely stopped numbering the chimps and just started giving them nicknames. So “Baker” was the first chimp to survive both the flight and the post flight operations. At the age of 27, Baker was buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center. Ham, our American hero and Enos, his successor, were the two most well-known astrochimps but there were many others who lived and died with little fanfare.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the  Mercury Redstone  rocket.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

Furious George

Beyond the States, Russia, France, Argentina and Iran have all launched their own chimps - most of whom also perished during their flights. Astronauts dying mid-flight has always been horrendous for space programs. The Columbia and Challenger disasters crippled the American space program. So for riskier flights, especially during the initial testing phases, it made sense to send a chimp who will garner far less media attention in the event of a malfunction. Chimps are very similar to humans biologically and it is reasonable to assume that any effects they experience from space flight could also be experienced by a human.

What most people don’t realize is scientists of the time had no idea of what to expect from people in space. No person had ever been that far from the ground before. It just hadn’t been possible. We know now that people are fine in space with the appropriate precautions being taken. At the time, however, they were just guessing. Would lessened gravity distort people’s eyeballs and blind them? Maybe the change in weight of body parts would restrict movement, leaving the pilot unable to control the ship at altitude. Would the space radiation kill people before they could safely land? NASA, the Soviet space program and the rest of the world had absolutely no clue. So they sent up chimps and hoped for the best.


Monkey Business

The use of chimps in aerospace was an unfortunate necessity of the time. A space program that had as many astronauts die as chimps did would have been cancelled and condemned very quickly. Chimps were a necessary sacrifice in the vital quest for information. But I want to finish this story with a happy ending. One about what happened to the chimps after the space programs no longer needed them. This story reinforces where using chimps or any surrogates as research tools can go wrong when the agency using them doesn’t respect them as intelligent organisms.

In the 1970s the Air Force decided it no longer needed its chimp colony. The space race was finished; they had all the information launching chimps could give them. So they began leasing them to medical facilities in New York and New Mexico State. That lasted for a while.


Gorilla Warfare

Then in 1997 they decided to officially “retire” them forever. Luckily that didn’t mean putting them to sleep. The Air Force would instead sell the chimps on the open market. In a mock “bidding” process, they only considered one bid, which came from The Coulston Foundation. This foundation had a horrendous track record of animal cruelty and had once had 300 chimps seized because of negligent care. Important people asked that instead these chimps go to a sanctuary.

They still had memories of Ham and other chimp sacrifices in the Space Race and wanted these chimps to be treated with some respect and dignity. Here’s where Dr. Carole Noon comes in. With the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Fouts, Noon fought hard for the chimps to be moved to a sanctuary. The Air Force, in what they must have thought was a “show of good faith”, awarded 30 chimps to Dr. Noon and the rest to The Coulston Foundation. Dr. Noon was less than pleased. She raised the funds herself and built a sanctuary in Florida. After a year-long court battle she finally won custody of the remaining 21 chimps and moved them to her sanctuary. Today she operates the Save the Chimp foundation which is where these chimps are living out their days peacefully and without testing.


Chimpy Meadows

A life of rest and peace is a fitting end for the descendants of the monkeys who helped us reach space. But the fact that the Air Force was going to condemn them to an abusive testing facility reaffirms the lack of respect they have for these animals’ intelligence and their contribution to the space program. Moving forward it would serve any agency using animals for testing to consider the following: Will this test give us information that could not be obtained otherwise? Can we use people instead without putting those people through some significant risk? And in the event they do decide animals are necessary: Are we treating these animals with respect and dignity both during the testing process and afterwards?

Thank you astro-chimps the world over for your sacrifices. You may not realize it, but you’ve helped to start something which could change humanity’s destiny forever.


For more of Andrew Walls’ writing visit his space and entrepreneurship blog: Landing Attempts.

Out of respect for the chimps discussed in this article, Landing Attempts has made a donation to the Save The Chimps Foundation founded by Dr. Noon. Save the Chimps works to reclaim and house chimps affected by biomedical testing facilities. They deserve our support and respect.


Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars.

Cassidy, David and Davy Kristin. Space Chimps.

Wall, Mike. Scientific American.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones