On January 31, 1961, a brave 3-year-old chimpanzee was strapped into a capsule inside the Mercury Redstone rocket and launched 160 miles above the earth. For 16 minutes, he orbited at a speed of 5857 mph before crashing down into the Atlantic Ocean, a little dehydrated, but otherwise unharmed. This furry astronaut, dubbed HAM (for Holloman Aero Med) upon his successful arrival back to Earth, paved the way for the United States' first human astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., to make history three short months later on May 5, 1961.
Although HAM was the first chimpanzee in space, he was certainly not the first animal in space. A long history of animals in space can be found through NASA's history archives. Fans of HAM's work can pay their respects by visiting his grave near the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamagordo, NM.
Thanks for your contribution to science, AstroChimp HAM. Next stop: Mars?