Sunday, March 19, 2006


In the late 1950s, the United States Air Force acquired 65 juvenile chimpanzees. Among them were Ham and Enos. No doubt Ham and Enos and the others had witnessed the slaughter of their mothers.

Let the new life begin. The Air Force used the chimps to gauge the effects of space travel on humans. The small chimps were spun in giant centrifuges. They were placed in decompression chambers to see how long it took them to lose consciousness. They were exposed to powerful G forces-forces due to acceleration felt by pilots or by riders on roller coasters.

Three-year-old Ham was the first chimpanzee to be rocketed into space. This occurred on January 31,1961. NASA archives record "a series of harrowing mischances," but Ham returned alive. The results pleased astronauts and capsule engineers, and three months later Alan Shepard became the first American to be shot into space.

Enos, age five, was launched on November 29, 1961. Enos had undergone a meticulous year of training to perform certain operations upon receiving certain prompts. Upon launch, however, the capsule malfunctioned, and Enos received an electric shock each time he acted correctly. Nevertheless, he continued to make the moves he knew to be right, shock after shock after shock. He orbited earth two times and returned alive.

The following year John Glenn orbited earth three times. On March 1, 1962, in lower Manhattan, four million people greeted Glenn and two fellow astronauts with a huge ticker-tape parade, confetti falling like snow at Christmas.

Ham and Enos were transferred to "hazardous environments" duty. To test the new technology of seatbelts, they were strapped into sleds, whizzed along at 30, 50, 100 mph, slammed into walls.

By the 1970s the Air Force, done with the chimps, leased them out for biomedical research. These highly sociable primates, now adults in their 20s, were stored in cement-block cells with bars in front, but with no windows between cells to provide contact with fellow chimps.

After such a life, Ham died. After such a life, Enos died.

From Genome Tome by Priscilla Long
American Scholar (Washington, DC)
(74:3) [Summer 2005] , p.28-41.

Nominated for best Feature Writing, National Magazine Awards 2005.

No comments: