Monday, January 31, 2011

Iconic Monday: Ham, Space Chimp

On Friday we took note of the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Today, another space icon needs to be mentioned: Ham, the chimpanzee who rode a Mercury space capsule atop a Redstone rocket into space for some 16 minutes on January 31, 1961--50 years ago today. He was the first hominid to go into space--Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to go into space the following April; Alan Shepard became the second human, and the first American, ride into space in May, 1961.

Ham in an iconic NASA PHOTO
But today is all about Ham, and a couple of heroic pictures. It may be hard for anyone who wasn't a kid at that moment to realize how glamorous this animal was in his tin-foil space suit--he made the cover of Life, for goodness sake, which shows you how badly America need space heroes. Scientists, and the rest of us who knew about space from 1950s sci-fi movies, were kind of unsure about what was up there, really, and whether an elevated organism like a chimp or human would be able to perform tasks or survive the mysteriousness of weightlessness and crushing loneliness of the black unknown. We were in a Outer Space PR battle with the Russians and we didn't want to be the first country to kill a man in space, so we trained a chimp and launched him first, just in case. (The Soviets had alread sent a dog and a monkey.) When the Soviets and we started blasting men into space a few months later, Ham became old news pretty quickly. But he has rightfully regained his place in history in movies and books. One of those movies, Space Chimp, spawned a video game of the same title.

There were two pictures that cemented Ham in the nation's memory. One was that cover shot for Life, showing Ham with his arms forthrightly crossed and an expression that implied a disregard for danger. (Who had more swagger...Ham or John Glenn?) Then there was a famous shot of Ham sitting in his chimp chair, wearing a NASA hard hat, sneering, sort of, at fear (above). Tom Wolfe included Ham in The Right Stuff as an ironic foil to the gritty courage of America's original astronauts. Here's some dialog from the movie version:
Deke Slayton: What Gus is saying is that we're missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they're gonna send a monkey up to do a man's work. But what Gus is saying is that what they're trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey's work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees! 
By the way, Ham fans can find a very nice collection of images, many made by the great photographer Ralph Morse, at

Ham by Life's great Ralph Morse
 In Wolfe's version of space travel, the Mercury astronauts see Ham as a threat to their sense of themselves--a symbol of a future in which technology would sublimate man's spirit of adventure. But maybe the "monkey" had the right stuff too. That's the conclusion that evidence of the photos seems to support.

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