Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2) was the penultimate test flight of the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle prior to the first manned American space mission in Project Mercury. It was launched on January 31, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Mercury spacecraft No. 5 carried Ham the Chimp, a chimpanzee, on a suborbital flight, landing in the Atlantic Ocean 16 minutes and 39 seconds after launch.
Six chimpanzees (four female and two male) and 20 medical specialists and animal handlers from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where the chimps lived and were trained, were moved into quarters behind Hangar S at Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 2, 1961. The six chimps were trained in Mercury simulators for three weeks. The day before the flight, two chimps were chosen for the mission: one primary, Ham, and one backup, a female chimp named Minnie. The competition was fierce, but Ham was full of energy and good humor. Ham was named in honor of Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. Ham was from Cameroon, Africa, (original name Chang, Chimp No. 65) and was purchased by the USAF July 9, 1959. He was 3 years 8 months old at launch.
Ham performed his tasks well, pushing levers about 50 times during the flight. On-board cameras filming Ham’s reaction to weightlessness showed a surprising amount of dust and debris floating around inside the capsule during apogee. After his spaceflight, Ham was transferred to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. for 17 years and then in 1981 was moved to a zoo in North Carolina to live with a colony of other chimps. He died on January 19, 1983, at the age 26. Ham is buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He was one of many animals in space.
Ham’s backup, Minnie, was the only female chimp trained for the Mercury program. After her role in the Mercury program ended, Minnie became part of an Air Force chimp-breeding program, producing nine offspring and helping raise the offspring of several other members of the chimp colony. She was the last surviving astro-chimp. She died at the age of 41 on March 14, 1998.