A chimpanzee who doesn't want to go back to space

In the early 1960s, various test missions to pave the way for the first US astronaut would deal with various aspects of the Mercury program, such as missiles, emergency systems, re-entry equipment, navigation, communications, maneuvering, etc. But the most important aspect of the test program was undoubtedly the demonstration of habitability of the space capsule It must carry a crew member. Features such as life support, which are supposed to keep the passenger alive, must be thoroughly checked to see if he can travel through space without endangering his life.

NASA tested the Mercury capsule on several occasions and at different altitudes, without occupants, but soon had to carry out a test mission with organisms on board to certify that all systems related to maintaining the astronaut's life worked as planned.

Also, every aspect of the first astronaut's journey during his pioneering orbital journey had to be simulated in great detail. To do this, a Mercury spacecraft would be launched, similar to what the astronaut said he would soon use, except that he would replace the ship with something more human-like.

Until then, the Soviet Union mainly used dogs for its space test flights. On the other hand, the Americans preferred the competition of chimpanzees, which are highly intelligent and are taught to perform certain actions inside the spaceship. Due to space limitations, NASA uses chimpanzees that have not yet reached adulthood, but are old enough to withstand space travel.

So, on January 31, 1961, the agency launched a test mission from Cape Canaveral, the purpose of which was to simulate exactly what the first American astronaut would feel during his historic suborbital mission. For this, capsule number 5 was chosen and a container was placed in it, in which a small chimpanzee named Ham would travel. It belongs to a group of six chimpanzees trained at the Holloman Space Medical Center and capable of staying inside a mercury capsule for long periods of time, no small feat. During the journey, he has to move certain levers depending on the various lights activated in front of him, proving that space travel has not harmed his cognitive state. To rule out inconsistent behavior, he gets treats as a reward if he gets it right, and small electric shocks as punishment if he doesn't.

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(Photo: NASA)

The flight took off without incident. However, a problem with the Redstone rocket's (MR-2) accelerator would not be resolved until 137 seconds later, when the liquid oxygen used as an oxidizer ran out. In response to this anomaly, the emergency turret rocket went into action, removing the capsule from the vector and taking it to a higher than expected altitude of 253 km. This represents 7 minutes of weightlessness for Hamm, which does not affect him in terms of his movements. During re-entry, the animal sustained a deceleration of 14.7 Gs, which is higher than normal. The capsule also depressurized, but this did not affect its occupant, who traveled within its airtight container.

After a flight of 16 minutes and 39 seconds, the capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean 679 km from its launch site, 209 km farther than expected. Due to the long wait for rescuers to arrive and the violence of the waves, the beryllium heat shield was severed and the bag collapsed and damaged, soaking in the water. . A portion of this water seeped into the capsule's interior due to an open valve that pressurized the cabin during the previous descent.

Fortunately, Hamm was rescued safely, and a quick check-up confirmed he was in good condition. But later when he accompanied his guards to the object of his journey, the Mercury capsule, the animal behaved as if it had seen a ghost. Almost hysterical, because of the poor memory it gave him, Hamm was unable to rejoin the Mercury training team. Unable to speak, he had made it clear that he no longer wanted to fly into space!

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Fortunately for NASA, other chimpanzees are willing to replace Ham. One of them was Enos, whose work met with less backlash than his predecessors. During this trip, special attention will be given to communication systems. It is essential to ensure as much contact as possible between the capsule and ground control. Crews on the ground can follow the flight and assist crew members as much as possible. Therefore, during the experimental missions of the Mercury project, not only the vehicles, but also the ground communication unit will be equipped with a series of monitoring stations distributed around the world. One of them, during the Mercury MA-6 flight, was in Australia. Since Enos, a monkey, would play this task, one decided that it would be more convenient for the controllers to think like chimpanzees: when they stood in front of their consoles, they all saw a beautiful banana in them. The surprise gift made everyone laugh and eased the tense atmosphere.

As for the mission, which began on February 20, 1962, it lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, and was quite a test for poor Enos. Trained to move a series of levers as his successor did, otherwise he would receive small electric shocks telling him he was doing something wrong, the animal performed his task with complete expertise. During the first orbit, without knowing where he was (he probably thought he was still on Earth, since there were no windows to show him out), he precisely executed the planned activity and rest moments. But during the second orbit, the system that fired the volleys broke even when Enos moved the right lever. He can be seen in internal footage carrying out orders without hesitation, with his teeth clenched but his fingers electrified. No doubt he remembered his training when something really bad happened if the “flight plan” wasn't followed: The chimpanzees were locked in a dark enclosure if they made a mistake, and rewarded if they did right. Enos knew exactly what to expect and did his job despite all the gripes in the world.

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