Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first chimpanzee in space. Not a lot of people know that.
The chimp in question was called Ham — not because he was partial to a certain sandwich, but rather an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center in New Mexico. However, to his handlers he was Chop Chop Chang.
Nasa officially called the chimp “No.65” and only recognised it as Ham after the successful completion of the mission. The reasoning was that the public would become upset if an animal with a name died in space, but would be less emotional about a number expiring.
Thankfully Ham survived his 16min 39sec flight, splashing down in the Atlantic with little more than a bruised nose to become the first hominid in space. The mission was hugely important because the chimp successfully pulled a couple of levers in flight, proving astronauts could perform tasks while in space.
The mission created considerable excitement in the US and Ham made the cover of Life magazine on Feb 10, 1961, looking cute in his Nasa helmet. The risks involved were reflected in the banner headline of the San Francisco Examiner which proclaimed with some relief, “SPACE CHIMP LIVES!”
Only a couple of months later Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth, swiftly followed by America’s Alan Shephard.
According to Life photographer Ralph Morse, Ham “was a very friendly fellow”. When the capsule opened up after splashdown the chimp reportedly emerged “burping proudly”.
Originally captured in the Cameroon jungle, after his mission Ham spent 17 years in American zoos before his death in 1983. He was buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
If you can spare a moment today, it might be appropriate to give a little toast to our chimpanzee friend who was a true space warrior. Just imagine the poor bugger hurtling around up there not having a clue what was happening.
It would be remiss not to mention Laika (Barker in English), which became the first dog in space back in 1957, aboard the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2. A Moscow street dog, Laika was dubbed “Muttnik” in the US. Sadly, Laika was on a one-way ticket and perished in space. The USSR was so consumed with the “Space Race” they cut corners and did not have the technology to get the module or the dog back to Earth safely.
In Britain the public were furious at this disregard for the dog’s life and held a minute’s silence to pay their respects. If you choose to read more about Laika, I suggest you have a handkerchief on standby.
Years later a Soviet scientist involved in the Laika mission expressed remorse. “The more time passes, the more I am sorry about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have done it.” The Russians eventually erected a statue of Laika in Star City. Laika’s name lives on in books poems and films, but you cannot escape that it’s a truly melancholy tale.
The whole menagerie
Since the original dog flights, all sorts of unfortunate creatures have whizzed around in space, not all of them living to tell the tale. They include mice, rats, monkeys, rabbits , tortoises, cats, squirrels, birds, frogs and even stick insects. Thankfully they didn’t try elephants — that would have been bit of a squeeze.
For the curious, the first cat in space was a French feline called Felicitte which did a quick orbit in Oct 1963. She initially survived, but died shortly after following a brain operation. So much for happy endings.
The Soviets chose street dogs for space experiments because they reckoned they were stronger than domestic hounds. Maybe Thailand can learn from the Soviet experience. I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting Thai dogs be blasted into space, but we should appreciate that Thai strays might be more useful than we imagine. After all they have to be street smart to survive in Bangkok’s traffic.
Bangkok strays have been a problem for years and there have been assorted wonderful proposals to solve the problem of wandering woofers. One of the more bizarre suggestions came from a politician who proposed a race track for the strays on the lines of greyhound racing. He felt it could become a major tourist attraction.
This idea was mercifully abandoned when it was pointed out that it was most unlikely that tourists would travel thousands of kilometres to Thailand to watch a lot of flea-bitten mongrels scampering around a track chasing a bunny rabbit.
Even less likely was finding enough strays capable of running more than 20 metres without stopping to have a piddle, a sniff or a scratch.
Paws for thought
When Chamlong Srimuang was governor of Bangkok many years ago he had an ambitious scheme to solve the problem of strays, proposing a huge dogs’ home where they could all live together in barking harmony — a kind of giant kennel.
This was all very well until it became apparent that they could be looking after up to 250,000 homeless hounds. Citizens also made it clear they did not relish being neighbours to tens of thousands of howling, hungry hounds.
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