We often forget where we started, how an adventure begins. Who were the first pioneers to reach and touch the unforgettable unknowns of the world and the universe? Sadly we often find faults with our explorers and heroes who have so many untold stories, so many skeletons, and so many tragedies.
This is a story about one of the least known astronauts in the history of space travel and the legacy that his sacrifice would ultimately create…
Featured photo credit: www.indianexpress.com
He was only 6 years old when his face was full of more fear than most people could have ever imagined. Being thrown into the unknown, into something he couldn’t possibly have hoped to have understood. He felt the uncertainty of the world. The uncertainty of his survival, and his ignorance to the situation didn’t offer him any bliss.
Stars and Stripes
He fell from the highest reaches of the sky after being placed up there by us. His name was Ham. One of the first astronauts to carry the US flag into a sub-orbital flight after being trained at NASA facilities to help pave the way for humans to start traveling among the stars. Why was he so afraid if he was trained? Did something go wrong?
Post War Adventure
Back in the 1950’s after the war, the US and Russia were the only two nations that still had an ample supply of resources at their disposal. Russia, due to its vast size, and the United States partially due to its late entry into the war, had money to burn and once the world was divided up they turned that energy into competing with each other to see who was better.
The contest for who was better wasn’t one that was going to be solved by guns and the lives of men. No; this time around the contest looked toward the stars and who would be the first to conquer the great unknown. Man has always looked toward the stars with infinite fascination and wonder. These were the heavens, and we were going to have them.
In every point of human history, references can be found in stories and in debates on what is up there. Are they the gods, are there other life forms out there. They were our maps, our legends, our ancestors. But until now, it hadn’t been us and that was about to change.
In 1957 the Soviet Union, which at the time was much larger than modern-day Russia, struck the first blow in regards to the space race. The Soviet Union launched what was known as Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite into space that would go on to orbit the earth until the early days of 1958 when it would burn up on reentry.
Upping The Ante
Before the United States could even respond, the USSR upped the ante and launched Sputnik 2. The first spacecraft to be sent into orbit that contained a living creature. At the time, the USSR had an abundance of stray dogs that roamed the streets of Moscow and one of their scientists selected one for their mission.
Dog in Space
Laika was successfully sent into space and her sacrifice was seen as proof that a human could be launched into orbit and survive. Regrettably, at the time, the USSR had yet to develop the methodology to recover a spacecraft from orbit, and Laika was sent into space on a one-way mission.
Not to be outdone, the United States had a plan to counter this so they took steps to create their own astronaut team and from the heat of Africa, our explorer Ham, was purchased by the United States Air Force. The intention: to change the world and not only survive the launch into space, but also to return home safely.
His fee was bananas
Ham was originally known as Subject 65, and he was part of an elite team of space chimps who were trained by NASA to perform simple tasks in zero gravity and see if man could survive the launch, reentry, and everything in between while doing work and for the advancement of science in space.
Ham and his fellow astronauts were taught a simple sequence of levers that need to be pulled while they would be in orbit in the capsule. Any time the correct sequence was pulled they would get a small reward of banana pellets, and for each mistake, he would receive a shock. Eventually, he and his classmates would all learn the sequence.
These are the Voyages
Ham was chosen to represent the United States as the first hominid in space due to what the scientists noted was his high energy and good humor overall. He would be our ambassador to the stars. To boldly go where only two other man-made objects and a dog have gone before!
Fitted with a spacesuit and covered with sensors so that computers on the ground could monitor his vitals, Ham was ready for his inaugural spaceflight. Loaded into the capsule, Ham was secured into his seat, and with the powerful mercury 2 rocket behind him, he was propelled into orbit and making history. But why then would he be so afraid if this is what he had trained for?
Speed Of Sound
During his flight, the vibrations of breaking through Earth’s gravity forced parts of his spacecraft to come undone. His cabin began to lose pressure and the oxygen content began to drop dangerously low. Thankfully, his spacesuit protected him from the crushing forces on his body which would have been worse than any rollercoaster.
As he regained his composure, Ham began to perform the simple tasks laid out by the researchers of pulling the levers in the order he had been trained to do. But during takeoff there had been an electrical malfunction. Every correct sequence gave him a shock. He never received any treats, just pain on his 16-minute long flight.
Things only got worse for Ham, during reentry in which he was subjected to the same powerful forces that had been on his takeoff, so was his ship, and this time a bolt fell out creating a hole. When Ham splashed down in the water, 60 miles from the nearest boat, he began to sink. Had the boat arrived any later, he would have drowned. Ham was retired from the space program after his first flight, and sent to live in a sanctuary for his remaining days.
Regrettably, the initial response to the passing of Ham in recognition of his service was to have him unceremoniously stuffed and his skin placed on display. Thankfully that idea was quickly shot down due to outcry as noted in a letter on display in the Smithsonian summing up the feelings of the public. “By treating his body like that of a stupid beast, people will continue thinking of apes as stupid beasts, and not the intelligent, almost human animals they really are.”
Eventually, in a credit to their service both Ham and Lakia were eventually given honorary plaques and statues to commemorate what they helped accomplish. Lakia was given a statue in Moscow, and Ham was cremated after his death. A memorial plaque was erected at the International Space Hall of Fame, and his bones were given to the national museum of health and medicine.
Today new animal rights laws prevent most tests from being done on animals for any scientific purpose. Within the last few months the United States has begun to retire its national research chimp supply and has sent them off to retirement communities around the country where they can live out their days together in peace.
We accept that we have made mistakes and are trying to fix them one step at a time in the scientific community. What we can only hope for now is that our nearest evolutionary cousins forgive us and don’t revolt to start a new society where people are the subjects and are made to into slaves; just like in the famous movie.