Fifty years ago, no hominid had ever made it into space. Ham the Astrochimp, aside from having one of the greatest names in the history of science, changed all that. LIFE has never before seen photos of the furry starblazer.
In this hitherto unpublished shot, we see little Ham (short for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center from which he originated) being fitted into his pre-launch backpack. Such composure! Such grace! The chimp was born for this mission.
Ham was actually one of an entire team of space chimps who trained for a spot onboard the Mercury rocket, but again! Look at this one! So stoic and ready for the cosmos. The chimps' training required proficiency with spacecraft controls, as seen here. The motivation? Banana pellets, of course. This is pretty remarkable stuff—the chimps weren't being prepped to just ride along in a rocket, but to actually control it, in outer space. Ham proved to be the superior ape, beating out 39 competitors to lead the mission.
And in the end? Ham was a class act. Here he is, all smiles after returning to earth—despite a bruised nose suffered upon splashdown—and probably looking forward to a lavish reception by adoring lady chimps. His tenure in space was less than 20 minutes long, but proved that complex mechanical controls could be operated in space quickly enough to provide a safe return—paving the way for Alan Shepard's historic spaceflight later that year. Ham was a hero, a pioneer, and a chimp. And for all that, he spent a comfortable hero's retirement at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. His remains now reside at the International Space Hall of Fame. This ape was more accomplished than I'll ever be.
Check out LIFE for the rest of the shots—apes and space are two of the most wonderful nouns possible, and their union is even better. [LIFE]