January 31, 1961 - On this day a chimpanzee named Ham became the first hominid in space.
Born in Cameroon in 1956, Ham was captured and brought to America as part of a roadside zoo in Florida. In 1959 he was drafted by the Air Force as one of 40 chimpanzees trained for space travel.
The chimps were taught to respond to flashing lights by pushing specific buttons within a set time frame. If they didn't perform properly, they received an electric shock. Good performances were rewarded with food.
Ham excelled in the training and thanks to his quick reaction times he found himself inside atop a Project Mercury rocket being blasted into space. Traveling at 2000 MPH he performed his button-pushing tasks as planned. 16 minutes and 39 seconds later he splashed down in the Atlantic, where he was picked up by the U.S.S. Donner.
Ham lived for many years in the National Zoo in Washington, and later at the North Carolina Zoo. He died in 1983 at age 26.