Research

Research

Air and Space

Space chimp slammed at high speed
Chimpanzee, name unknown, propelled for crash test
Photo: Courtesy of US Air Force

The chimpanzee was adequately secured against flailing, but helmet and clothing proved unsatisfactory; the flying suit tore and exposed the subject to serious burning from windblast. Roughly forty per cent of the body was covered with second and third degree burns.

-Project Abrupt Deceleration,
Weekly Test Status Report,
16 September and 26 October 1954, 8 February 1955.
NASA History site

Chimpanzees captured from their homelands in Africa were injured or killed in tests conducted by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) as part of the Air & Space Research program.

After the first successful manned space flights, the Air Force leased out most of its surviving chimpanzees for use in biomedical experiments rather than sending them to sanctuaries. Many of these unfortunate chimpanzees ended up in the hands of Fred Coulston, a toxicologist.

Chimpanzees: tools for the air & space race

Space chimpanzee strapped for training
Chimpanzee, name unknown, strapped for “training”
Photo: Courtesy of US Air Force

Meet some of the Air Force survivors: Dana  and Hanzie.

Learn more about Ham’s life.

Read more information about conditions at the Coulston Foundation.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force secured the capture of 65 young and infant chimpanzees in Africa and used them to establish an aeronautical research facility at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

America’s perception of itself as the world’s preeminent scientific and technical leader was shaken in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit. Our deep fear of the possibility of Soviet scientific supremacy was quickly reinforced by the November launch of Sputnik II carrying the dog, Laika.

The United States accelerated its space program and began consuming increasing numbers of nonhuman animals for space flight research. Mice, guinea pigs, and several species of monkeys were used in experiments prior to human space flight.

Chimpanzees had been used in military flight experiments starting in the early 1950s. As the space race heated up, they were used increasingly as test subjects for space flight research. (1)

Chimpanzees as crash test dummies

The height of the space research program involving chimpanzees lasted from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. During that time, chimpanzees were used to test the forces of gravity, the effects of high-speed movement, and other conditions anticipated in space travel.

Strapped into small, pitch-dark metal capsules, they were spun, jettisoned, and catapulted on track courses and in decompression chambers. Some were killed, and others were severely maimed, although the exact numbers were not documented.

Unfortunately, the headrest failed even before the sled reached supersonic speed, the helmet failed in turn, and the head was yanked so violently as to break the subject’s neck.

—Project Abrupt Deceleration,
Weekly Test Status Report,
16 September and 26 October 1954, 8 February 1955.
NASA History site

The “Sled”

NASA scientists devised a decompression “sled” known as Sonic Wind 1, constructed by Northrop Aircraft.

The first run with a living chimpanzee took place on January 28, 1954. The sled was jettisoned down a long track and designed to accelerate to speeds of 400 miles per hour before coming to an abrupt halt. (2) A sudden stop at such high speeds caused the chimpanzee’s brain to literally smash against the skull, resulting in massive trauma and death. (3)

Researchers also sought to study the effects of windblast at increasingly high speeds. According to a USAF status report, they devised a windshield that:

… [C]ould be jettisoned explosively at a given point during the run. Unfortunately, the jettisonable windshield inflicted quite a bit of damage on chimpanzees, causing the death of more than one, before this method finally proved its value. (4)

Smash speeds increase

In 1955 a new, higher speed sled, Sonic Wind 2, was devised specifically to test windblast. Sled velocities on this device reached up to 1,350 feet per second, encountering wind pressures in excess of 2,000 pounds per square foot.

According to NASA’s historical review of these early aeronautical experiments on chimpanzees:

The first full-scale experiment came on 13 April [1955], with very moderate acceleration and deceleration but a peak velocity of 1,945 feet per second (about mach 1.7). The chimpanzee subject wore a special flying suit devised by the Aeromedical Field Laboratory and a helmet developed by Protection, Inc. Unfortunately the headrest failed even before the sled reached supersonic speed, the helmet failed in turn, and the head was yanked so violently as to break the subject’s neck. There was some burned tissue due to windblast, but chiefly the run underscored the danger that exists from flailing if the subject is not adequately secured. (5)

And in a separate test:

The next run at China Lake was held on 27 June [1955], and reached 1,905 feet per second, with a duration of two seconds at roughly mach 1.7. Maximum windblast was about 3,500 pounds per square foot. The test again resulted in the subject’s death, but this time it occurred twenty-four hours after the run, and the cause was different. The chimpanzee was adequately secured against flailing, but helmet and clothing proved unsatisfactory; the flying suit tore and exposed the subject to serious burning from windblast. Roughly forty per cent of the body was covered with second and third degree burns. The chimpanzee at least fared better than certain guinea pigs attached to the same test sled by the Bio-Acoustics Branch of Wright Air Development Center’s Aero Medical Laboratory. Two guinea pigs were attached merely with nylon netting, and the third was placed in a metal container whose largest opening measured one inch by two inches. The can itself stood up through the test, but all three guinea pigs vanished into thin air. (6)

Project Whoosh: ejection at supersonic speeds

Another phase of the research, Project Whoosh, was established to evaluate escape from high-speed aircraft. It is described on NASA’s website:

The project involved ejection of chimpanzee subjects, from a specially-designed Cherokee missile. The missile was to be taken aloft by a modified B-29 bomber and then accelerated to supersonic speeds before the anesthetized subject, strapped into an open ejection seat, was shot out from the missile’s interior.

It was cancelled beyond any doubt soon after the final Holloman test. Not one of the animals ejected at supersonic speeds survived, for in each case there were equipment difficulties (with parachute system or ejection seat) that led to death of the subject and overshadowed any possible evidence of injury through supersonic windblast, tumbling, and deceleration. Nevertheless, the project was not a total loss. Even the failures were instructive, and the work performed on Whoosh led directly to further ejection experiments at the Supersonic Military Air Research Track, Hurricane Mesa, Utah. (7)

Ham & Enos: unwilling “pioneers”

Many chimpanzees were trained for a mission into space, although only two were known to be sent into flight. Air Force personnel used straight jackets, neck rings, and four-limb restraint on the young chimpanzees to force them to comply with increasing periods in the coffin-like capsules and used painful electric shocks to train them to operate the control panels.

Ultimately, two chimpanzees, Ham and Enos, were sent into publicly celebrated space flights on separate missions several months apart. Ham, whose name was an acronym for Holloman Aero Med, was captured in July 1957 from the French Cameroons, West Africa, shortly after his birth. He was brought to Holloman in 1959.

On January 31, 1961, Ham was sent up in a Mercury Redstone rocket. Technical problems during his descent led the capsule to overheat and veer off course. After his capsule plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles off course from the recovery ship, water began seeping into the capsule. Fortunately, Ham was successfully rescued.

Ham’s flight achieved international acclaim. News photos showed a seemingly beaming chimpanzee among his human peers at NASA. A demonstration was planned to show the press how much Ham enjoyed his capsule. However, as the cameras rolled, four adult men could not get Ham to go back into the capsule, even though he had been taught that he would be given electric shocks if he disobeyed.

For those who understand chimpanzee behavior, Ham’s so-called “smile” for the cameras was a fear grimace, which looks similar to a human smile. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall observed that Ham’s expression was the “most extreme fear that I’ve seen on any chimpanzee.” (8)

Ham was retired from research in 1963 and transferred to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where he lived alone. (9) In 1980, he was moved to the North Carolina Zoo. He died three years later at the age of 26, approximately half the expected lifetime for a captive chimpanzee.

Enos: shocking intelligence

Five months after Ham’s flight, on November 29, 1961, five-year-old Enos orbited the earth twice aboard a Mercury Atlas rocket.

Enos’ flight was terminated prematurely due to an equipment malfunction that caused him to receive repeated electric shocks. Enos’ intelligence prevailed over the technical machinery. He successfully performed his tasks despite the fact that he was repeatedly shocked for operating the control panel correctly.

Despite his young age, Enos died of dysentery within 11 months of his flight. His death was not officially considered to be related to his years as a subject in space research.

Learn more by ordering One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps DVD from our online store.

A final betrayal: delivery to toxicologist Fred Coulston

By the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force stopped using chimpanzees. Rather than sending them to sanctuaries to protect them from further experimentation, the Air Force leased many out to biomedical laboratories. Most were leased to Fred Coulston, who promoted their use for testing chemicals and drugs. He eventually founded the Coulston Foundation, a facility that would become infamous for its poor conditions and repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Some Air Force chimpanzees were left to languish in confinement at Holloman Air Force Base. Born free 20 years earlier in the African jungle, these chimpanzees would spend the next several decades in the confinement of laboratory cages. A lucky few were rescued by animal protection groups and given permanent sanctuary.


Sources

Documentary: “One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps” produced by Kristin Davy and D. James Cassidy in conjunction with The Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, 2002.

(1) http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/afspbio/part6-3.htm

(2) NASA history website: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/afspbio/part4-2.htm

(3) Documentary: “One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps” produced by Kristin Davy and D. James Cassidy in conjunction with The Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, 2002.

(4) Project Abrupt Deceleration, Weekly Test Status Report, 16 September and 26 October 1954, 8 February 1955. NASA History site

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Jane Goodall in One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps (David Cassidy and Kristen Davy in conjunction with The Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, 2002), documentary.

(9) Documentary: “One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps” produced by Kristin Davy and D. James Cassidy in conjunction with The Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, 2002.

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