Monday, 31 January 2011

Cameroon's Gagarin: celebrating the life of Ham the Astrochimp

It was 50 years ago that astronaut Ham the Chimp made it into space ahead of Soviet pioneer Yuri Gagarin. To commemorate Ham’s historic space flight and subsequent life, I have a short piece in the G2 section of today's Guardian but there's so much more to say. Here is some of it:

Ham the Chimponaut following his space flight 50 years ago. Courtesy of NASA.

The story, or my version of it at any rate, starts in 1957. You’ll recall that the Soviet Union had just triumphed with its Sputnik double-whammy, which propelled the first artificial satellite and then animal (Laika the dog) into space. At that moment, the US Air Force was the institution with its eye on space and just days before the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958, the Air Force negotiated a contract with animal collectors in the French Cameroons to source some chimps. Though these animals remained the property of the Air Force, they would end up as star experimental figures in NASA’s Project Mercury, which sought to put the first man into space.

In 1960, three members of the US Air Force flew out to the French Cameroons to get the chimps. This is how one of them remembered the animals for a feature published The Airman magazine in April 1962:

“When the chimps are captured, they are very small and usually range in age from 10 to 18 months...The natives tie them with strips of bamboo when they capture them and make no particular arrangements for holding or feeding the young animals. When the vendor, who sells them to us, finally obtains them, they are quite heavily parasitized and malnourished.”

Once in the US, the colony of 15 chimps spent several weeks in quarantine at the Holloman Air Force Base in Alamagordo, New Mexico before entering training for space flight. If Pete “Maverik” Mitchell was the Top Gun ace, then subject 65 or Ham was head of the class at the “School for Space Chimps” (as the insiders called it). He was fit, was comfortable being strapped into his “couch” and quickly learned the lever-pushing tasks required of him. “He was wonderful,” recalled his handler Edward Dittmer for a book entitled Animals in Space. “He performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle. I’d hold him and he was just like a little kid.”

In early 1961, Ham and the next five most promising primates were flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida to prepare for an experimental flight on 31 January. The purpose of this mission, according to a NASA press release issued on 28 January 1961, was to provide “a check of the craft’s environmental control and recovery systems” and “a first test of the functioning of the life support system during an appreciable period – nearly five minutes – of zero gravity."

With just days to go, Ham got the nod and on the morning of the launch, he had a breakfast of oil, egg, cereal and condensed milk. Then his handler Dittmer dressed him in a nappy, waterproof pants and spacesuit; he fitted him with sensors to monitor his heart rate, breathing and body temperature during flight; and he sealed him into his capsule and helped load it onto the Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2) spacecraft.

Ham is prepared for his flight. Courtesy of NASA.

Ham is strapped down in his "couch". Courtesy of NASA.

Mercury Redstone-2 take-off. Courtesy of NASA.
Ham experienced weightlessness for more than six minutes of his sixteen-minute ordeal and some crushing forces on take-off and re-entry, but though clearly stressed seemed otherwise fine. The media coverage was massive, with headlines anticipating a manned flight in the spring. But a presidential advisory group reporting on the progress of Project Mercury was keen to avoid “the most expensive funeral man has ever had”. So US astronaut Alan Shepard did not fly on the next mission, which took place on 24 March 1961. Had he done so, the US would have won the race into space but on 12 April, Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet Union got there first.

If you’d like a visual version of Ham’s flight (and a gem of 1960s broadcasting), then check out this YouTube clip. “A hero of space, happy to be back among friends,” sings the narrator towards the end. “He has moved man closer than ever before to his age-old dream of travelling the heavens.” It’s rather a lovely piece.

Ham’s flight was certainly important, making it possible for Shepard’s sub-orbital flight on 5 May 1961 on board Freedom 7. But I’d like you to consider this: had Shepard been on the first manned mission into space, how would history remember Ham? My hunch is not at all. Shepard’s achievement would have eclipsed the chimp, relegating him to a mere footnote. As it was, Gagarin was the first into space on board Vostok-1 and the only way the US could claim victory was by bigging up Ham to such a degree that he became more human than chimp.

It’s of no surprise that Ham should have been anthropomorphised. He was a chimp after all, and we all know that from a genetic perspective chimps are essentially human. But the rest of Ham’s life was, by any chimp’s standards, pretty extraordinary. I’d like to illustrate this with some lovely archival material I have found relating to the rest of Ham’s life.

Following post-flight tests, Ham retired to something of a celebrity lifestyle at the US National Zoological Park (NZP) in Washington D.C. in 1963. At the Smithsonian Institution Archives (Box 22, Folder 9), I found a load of wonderful stuff relating to Ham’s stay at the zoo.

For example, in December 1963 whilst Ham was presumably still getting used to his new abode, Andrew Swanston, a young British philatelist, mailed the zoo with a rather unusual request. “I write to you in the hope you can be so kind as to foot or hand print of Ham the Space Chimp on the front of the envelope I enclose.” I was so intrigued that I wrote to Mr Swanston last week, using the same address that he’d been living at almost 50 years ago. It was a long shot, I knew, but it turned out to be well worth the price of the stamp. I’ll write about this in due course, but I found him alive, well and in the same home. He also kindly gave me permission to show you the envelope that Ham autographed.

Ham's prints on an envelope of space history. Courtesy of A.W. Swanston.

You will note that the envelope was franked on 31 January 1961 from Cape Canaveral, a feat achieved through some considerable cunning, which I'll let Mr Swanston explain himself on this audioboo.

Apart from Mr Swanston’s interesting letter, I found plenty of others. In 1968, a leap year, an anonymous correspondent sent Ham a Valentine’s card. “I mailed the others to Cape Kennedy now I've tracked you down,” she wrote. In it was a poem:
You're minus an appendix,
gall bladder + one lung?
They took out half your thyroid
Has surgery just begun?
You'll accept another person's hearts?
A kidney not refuse?
They're also welcome to your blood
Or you'll let them transfuse?
And that is just a wig, you said
You have no hair upon your head?
They long ago took out your teeth?
Your corneas you will bequeath
But a competitor says "you're mine"
Won't you be my Valentine?
I discovered that at some stage in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City seems to have purchased a chimp under the illusion it was Ham. “They have been displaying him as such for several years and are quite upset at having been bamboozled,” wrote the correspondent to the NZP. Presumably Chapultepec had paid full whack for their fraudulent chimp.

According to Animals in Space, Ham made several TV appearances and had a cameo in an Evel Knievel stunt movie. As I remember EK fondly from my youth, I wanted to find out which movie it was and stuck a post on the Ultimate Evel Knievel fan board. Just a few hours ago, I received disturbing news that there is no EK movie with a chimp in it and that the source of this misinformation appeared on Wikipedia in December 2002 as part of Ham's entry. I am investigating. If you know your Knievel films and you think there is a chimp in one of them, do let me know.

In 1980 and vastly overweight, Ham moved to North Carolina Zoo, where there were other chimps and allegedly struck up a friendship with a much younger female called Maggie. When he died there in 1983 at the relatively young chimp age of 25, it was not in the most dignified fashion, “slumped over with his back against the cage wall and his head bent toward his crotch”. Then again, what could be more fitting for an aging, overweight celebrity?

That’s all for now folks. If you think you might be interested in what happened to Ham next and where he is now, then look out for the next exciting instalment of the life (and afterlife) of the astrochimp.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Is Hollywood listening in on my brain?

For the past few years, I’ve occasionally had this feeling that someone in Hollywood must be watching over me, or at least listening in on the strange ideas that go chunking through my head. The first I knew of this possibility was in early 2008, when I received word that there was to be a cartoon called Kung Fu Panda. At the time, I’d done quite a bit of research that would eventually form part of my book The Way of the Panda and was preparing to write and present a documentary called Panda Ambassador for BBC Radio 4.

Then, later that year, a big, red, London bus passed me bearing an advert that blurted out the next Hollywood cartoon offering: Space Chimps. When I looked it up online, this is what I found:
Ham III, the grandson of the first chimp astronaut, is blasted off into space by an opportunity-seeking senator. Soon, the fun-loving chimp has to get serious about the mission at hand: Rid a far-away planet of their nefarious leader. Fortunately for Ham III, two of his simian peers are along for the ride.
This was weird because I’d also been researching the life (and death) story of Ham the Astrochimp, the first primate to make it into space (on 31 January 1961). I like to think of him as Cameroon’s Gagarin. I was intrigued by the plot for Space Chimps, for I knew that the real Ham had never reproduced (though it’s rumoured that did strike up a friendship with a chimp called Maggie during his tenure at the North Carolina Zoo in the run up to his death in 1983).

Still, I was prepared to put the geek aside and embrace this fictional descendent. Even if no grandson ever existed for real, the appearance of one in fiction was certainly a nice tribute to the great chimponaut himself. I’ve written a "Shortcuts" piece for The Guardian’s G2 about Ham to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic flight on board the Mercury-Redstone 2 spacecraft.

Whilst Kung Fu Panda was nominated an Oscar in 2009 (for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year), Space Chimps received no accolades whatsoever save an irrelevant nomination for its “Outstanding Achievement in Casting”. As you will find out if you buy G2 on Monday or tune back into this blog for a more thorough version of events, the real Ham – the chimp that actually flew into space – was cast in many different roles in life and death: as a chimp, as a research animal, as a heroic American astronaut, as a zoo animal, as a museum specimen, as a teaching tool. Quite incredibly, his bones themselves have even been cast. It’s a zonking story.

Finally, with my contract to write my panda book long-since sealed, with the writing well under way and the cover finalised, I learned of a DVD film called Way Of The Panda, which excusing the absence of the definite article appeared to have lifted my title of my book in its entirety. I bought a copy of the DVD immediately, for research you understand, only to discover that though Way Of The Panda claims to have come “from the artists and animators of Shrek”, it is appalling. The only good thing that can be said about it (apart from the title, of course) is that it is SO appalling that does have the power to make you laugh (especially, as my sons will tell you, if you are under the age of ten).

I’m still a little puzzled why nobody has done a Great Escape-style movie based on Lonesome George, the Galapagos tortoise who has been in captivity now for almost 40 years. But now I’ve said it, I'm sure it won’t be long before it's in production.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Panda news update

It’s been quite a week for pandas.

“We are still struggling to fully understand the panda’s ecological requirements.”

This is pretty much how the latest panda paper (out this week in Biology Letters) kicks off. After 30 years of research on wild pandas, it is rather surprising that there is still uncertainty over what pandas really want, but there you go. As I’ve said before, there’s little about pandas that’s black and white. Even the pelage is a little bit brown (and more so if you’re a panda from the Qinling Mountains).

Up until now, there best evidence seemed to suggest that the slope of hillside was something for panda conservationists to pay attention to, with pandas avoiding the steepest inclines. The paper by Wei Fuwen of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests this isn’t particularly important. By analysing “the largest, landscape-level dataset on panda habitat use”, he and his colleagues show that bamboo and old forests are by far the best predictors of panda presence. The bamboo should come as no surprise, of course, but the pandas’ preference for old forest is an important finding.

The authors speculate on why pandas like old forests. Perhaps the bamboo beneath them is more nutritious, or maybe it’s only in this particular habitat that mothers can find good dens to rear their cubs. This is clearly going to be the focus of further study. In the meantime, the main finding in this paper does pose a problem for anyone hoping to connect up fragments of bamboo forest. If you fashion corridors from newly planted trees and stick in a few stands of bamboo, the pandas will probably not use them. Tricky.

Also this week, it was announced that Edinburgh Zoo is to get pandas. It’s taken about five years of collaboration at a scientific level and almost the same at a diplomatic level. When I spoke to the PR agency representing Edinburgh Zoo, I was pleasantly surprised to come away with answers for my questions. Rather than the pandas being a gift from China, as the Chinese would like to portray it and as many media outlets dutifully reported, the pandas are on loan along the same lines as others (with the Chinese currently setting the annual fee at $500,000 per pair). The rumour is that the Edinburgh Zoo scientists may choose bamboo genetics as their research topic, which would be mighty interesting. And it’s expected the animals will arrive in September (to steal the thunder from WWF’s 50th anniversary celebrations perhaps?).

I was interviewed for a feature on the BBC website about why we love pandas and asked to write something along the same lines for the Guardian.