Ham the chimpanzee is famous for being the first great ape in space, earning this distinction on January 31, 1961. A key goal of this NASA Mercury-Redstone mission was to determine if animals could perform tasks in space. To that end, Ham, who was only 2 years old when the training began, was taught to move levers, both to receive awards in the form of banana pellets and to avoid punishment in the form of electric shocks to his feet. Ham, in addition to dealing with the terrifying demands of spaceflight, also had to actively avoid getting electric shocks during his journey. The young chimp performed exceptionally well—and under incredible adversity, as NASA explains:
Ham performed these tasks well, pushing the continuous avoidance lever about 50 times and receiving only two shocks for bad timing. On the discrete avoidance lever, his score was perfect. Reaction time on the blue-light lever averaged .82 second, compared with a preflight performance of .8 second. Ham had gone from a heavy acceleration g load on exit through six minutes of weightlessness and to another heavy g load on reentry hardly missing a trick. Onboard cameras filming Ham’s reaction to weightlessness also recorded a surprising amount of dust and debris floating around inside the capsule during its zenith.
The successful mission set the stage for Alan Shepard, who became the first U.S. citizen to reach space in 1961. Ham lived the rest of his life in zoos.