Mercury-Redstone 2

US #1193 pictures Friendship 7, which carried John Glenn on the first successful American orbit of the Earth.  Click image to order. 

On January 31, 1961, Mercury-Redstone 2 launched Ham the Chimp into space.

Begun in 1958, Project Mercury was the program to launch the first American into space.  Before sending people into space, NASA did a series of unmanned test flights, leading to Mercury-Redstone 2.

Item #M11324 – Set of three sheets honoring NASA’s 50th anniversary.  Click image to order. 

In December 1960, NASA launched Mercury-Redstone 1A, to test the spacecraft that would be used for the later mission. When that launch succeeded, they began preparations for the next step.  In early January 1961, six chimpanzees and 20 medical specialists and handlers were brought to Cape Canaveral.  The chimps underwent three weeks of training in Mercury simulators. Then the day before the flight, one male chimp, Ham was selected to go on the mission, with a female chimp Minnie named the backup.  The name Ham was taken from the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.

US #3410 – Exploring the Solar System mint sheet.  Click image to order. 

At 12:53 pm on January 31, 1961, Ham was placed into the spacecraft.  The craft had six new systems that weren’t on prior flights, including environmental controls, attitude stabilization, live retrorockets, voice communications, a closed loop abort sensing system, and a pneumatic landing bag.  The launch was delayed for nearly four hours due to a few minor issues, but at 4:55 pm, the MR-2 lifted off.  The rocket ended up on a high flight angle, which would lead to it missing its landing area by 130 miles.  Additionally, the cabin pressure dropped due to an unexpected issue, but Ham was safe in his space suit.  The rocket also reached a higher speed than expected and Ham was weightless for 6.6 minutes instead of the expected 4.9 minutes.

Despite the issues that arose, Ham successfully went about completing his tasks, which included pushing levers about 50 times. There were also cameras onboard that showed how Ham reacted to the weightlessness and also revealed a surprising amount of dust floating in the air.

Then 16 minutes and 39 seconds after the launch, the craft splashed down in the Atlantic.  It landed out of sight of the recovery forces, but they found the ship within a half hour and airlifted it to the nearby USS Donner.  Inside they found Ham in good spirits, and he excitedly accepted an apple and half an orange.

US #4527 pictures Alan Shepard and the Freedom 7.  Click image to order. 

The issues that occurred during the mission showed NASA that the planned MR-3 wouldn’t be ready for a human passenger. That flight was postponed while Mercury-Redstone BD was launched in March to test a new booster.  They would achieve their goal of getting a man in space that May when Alan Shepard made a 15-minute sub-orbital flight in the Freedom 7.  The spacecraft used for MR-2 is now on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

As for Ham, he found a new home at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  He lived there for 17 years before being moved to a zoo in North Carolina in 1981. He died in 1983 at the age of 26.

Click here for a video about Ham and Mercury-Redstone 2.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. It was very exciting to read about chimp going to space when I was in high school. The impression around us at that time was Americans can do things what any human can imagine. America was perceived as the brightest place on earth.

    1. Agree. Life in US is better than in any other country in the World. We should not give too much importance to events, news and politics. Over all picture is what to rely on.

  2. Was interesting reading about the mission of men to walk on the moon. After walking on the moon and planning other exciting visits to stars it is understandable why astronauts enjoy ‘flying high’ over our skies. I’m with them all the way.
    Who knows where we might land next? Keep exploring.

    1. Nice reminder of when America was admired. I wish we had that respect again. The Shepard stamp is really beautifully done.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful memory. The link to the actual news film of Ham’s launch was an added bonus. Thank you so much for going the extra mile to make this event so special.

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