History: November 29, 1961: First American to Orbit the Earth Was a Chimp!

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A Brief History

On November 29, 1961, the US space agency, NASA, launched Mercury Atlas 5, the first mission to send an American into orbit around the Earth in space. Russian Yuri Gagarin had already orbited the Earth, and 2 American astronauts had made sub-orbital space flights, but the time was right for the US to make the big step into orbital flight.

Digging Deeper

The specially trained “astronaut” chosen for this historic flight was Enos, a chimpanzee that had been bought by NASA from the Miami Rare Bird Farm in 1960. Enos had been subjected to over 1250 hours of training prior to his space flight, including experiencing weightlessness and being subjected to G forces. Enos was picked from the pool of potential space apes only 3 days prior to his flight.

Scheduled for 3 orbits, the flight was ended after only 2 orbits due to problems with the spacecraft overheating and (unfortunately) a malfunctioning electric shock device installed to discourage certain behavior! The poor furry guy was “Tased” 76 times during his flight. (And you wonder why PETA keeps getting new recruits!)

Enos and his Mercury space capsule landed in the ocean and was picked up by a US Navy destroyer, the chimpanzee apparently healthy after his amazing flight. Mercury Atlas 5 had been the final test flight before John Glenn became the first American human astronaut to orbit the Earth in February of 1962.

Enos followed in the “pawsteps” of Laika, the Russian dog, that had been the first living thing sent into space by humans. At least Enos survived his flight, while Laika did not. (Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners had often threatened his television wife, Alice, to a “Bang, boom, straight to the moon!” but apparently never followed through.)

Sadly, Enos died on November 4, 1962 after contracting severe diarrhea (shigellosis related dysentery). At that time, there was no effective antibiotic treatment for the ailment. Medical examiners found no relation to his space training or flights to the chimp’s death. The US space program started with a pool of 40 chimpanzees beginning training at Holloman Air Force Base (New Mexico). The first chimp sent into space by the US, named Ham, lived for 17 years after his flight. While at least some of Ham’s remains reside in the International Space Hall of Fame (New Mexico), it is unknown what happened to Enos’ remains, quite possibly thrown out with the trash after his post mortem exam.

Many people believe animal testing of medicines, health care products, vehicles, and even space ships is cruel and inhumane, and that people should not use animals for this sort of testing. What do you think? Please share your opinion if you think the use of Enos and his fellow chimpanzees was righteous or “wrong-eous!” Under what circumstances is animal testing ethical or unethical?

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.