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Pilgrimage to the grave of Ham the Astrochimp

Crave's Nerdy New Mexico series delivers flowers to the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first chimpanzee launched into space. It was a big confidence booster for NASA prior to sending humans into orbit.

Ham the Astrochimp
Ham the Astrochimp in 1961.

ALAMOGORDO, N.M.--A flat plaque in cement on the ground in front of the flagpoles at the New Mexico Museum of Space History marks the final resting place for Ham the Astrochimp. I've brought flowers to spruce the place up a little bit, but it still looks very plain. This isn't quite what I expected. I thought the grave of a space pioneer might have a little more flair.

Earning a real name
Ham's name is an acronym for "Holloman Aeromedical," the lab where he and other space chimps were trained. He didn't earn a real name until he successfully returned from orbit. Before that, he was Chimp Number 65.

Ham was born in 1955 (some sources say 1956) and died in 1983. In 1961, he was strapped into a chimp restraint suit, placed in a Mercury module, and rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral. He experienced seven minutes of weightlessness and nearly 15 G-forces on re-entry.

Ham was part of Project Mercury, a mission with the ultimate goal of putting a man in space. Ham was trained to push a lever upon seeing a blue light, which he successfully accomplished during his flight. This gave NASA valuable information on the ability to conduct tasks while in space.

Later, in 1961, another Project Mercury chimp named Enos also made it into orbit and returned safely. These chimp flights were essentially dress rehearsals for human space missions.

Life after space
After his experience, Ham spent the rest of his life in retirement in zoos. Now he's buried in Alamogordo, not far from where he trained to go into space in the first place.

The animal lover in me can't help but feel uncomfortable at the thought of a chimpanzee being rocketed into the confusion of a space journey.

All Ham knew was that one day he was running around in the African wild, the next he was captured, and then eventually tied down and blasted into orbit.

It must have been a surreal experience for the little chimp. It's something that humans like Ashton Kutcher are willing to pay big bucks for. Ham didn't have a choice.

The little plaque at the grave site reads, "Ham proved that mankind could live and work in space." That's a pretty big burden to have placed on the shoulders of a little chimp. It's well worth a gift of flowers and a quiet thank-you that could never be enough. Next time, I'll bring bananas.

Ham's grave marker
Ham's grave is at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Amanda Kooser/CNET