January 31, 1961 – Space chimp Ham launches into orbit
Ham the Astrochimp was the first hominid launched into space, January 31, 1961, aboard a project Mercury Capsule (MR-2). The Astrochimp mission was considered unsuccessful by Werhner von Braun and so he pushed back the first U.S. manned space mission (Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission on May 5th, 1961) further out. As a result, the Russians succeeded in launching the first man into space with Yuri Garagrin. (April 12, 1961).
“In December 1960, the four-year-old chimpanzee was trained to do simple, timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds. In his pre-flight training, Ham was taught to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light; failure to do so would result in an application of positive punishment in the form of a mild electric shock to the soles of his feet, while a correct response earned him a banana pellet. After all of the 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 not merely a passenger, and the results from his test flight led directly to the mission Alan Shepard would make on May 5, 1961 aboard the Freedom 7.”