Little Joe launches

To test the basic principle of the conical Mercury capsule, a number of bare-bones boilerplate models were produced. These could be launched on top of the relatively cheap Little Joe booster rocket - a two-stage launch vehicle in which each stage was itself a cluster of four solid-fuelled rockets.

The boilerplate capsules and their rockets were fitted with instruments to record the stresses and temperatures encountered in each flight. Low-altitude flights tested the escape system, while higher trajectories allowed the engineers to see how Mercury behaved as it re-entered the atmosphere and to test the performance of prototype heat shields. Two of the later Little Joe missions carried passengers - rhesus monkeys called Sam and Miss Sam - in order to test their ability to survive the forces experienced in a real Mercury mission. Both animals survived with no obvious ill effects.

While Soviet engineers typically sent dogs on their early test flights, NASA's medical experts felt that primates would provide the best data about the stresses of space travel - if a monkey could survive a

FIT FOR AN APE

Ham and the later space chimp Enos (shown here) both wore custom-made spacesuits for their flights. In Ham's case, the suit probably saved his life when a loose valve resulted in a sudden drop in cabin pressure.

The first ape in space

A group of six chimps were trained for test flights aboard the Mercury capsule, and a male called Ham (see panel, right) was selected for a sub-orbital flight aboard a Redstone-launched Mercury on 31 January 1961. Other tests with the Redstone had gone well, but the Atlas vehicle needed to put the

Mercury launch and re-entry in good condition, then it seemed likely that a human could do. And there was another advantage of using primates - some were smart enough to be trained, allowing doctors to assess how they fared mentally in orbit.

capsule into orbit was still hitting problems, and it was clear that NASA's first human spaceshot would have to be on a sub-orbital trajectory. Ham's flight was a dress rehearsal for the human flight. It hit a number of snags, but the stresses the chimp overcame convinced the experts that a Mercury mission was survivable even if things did go wrong. However, von Braun insisted on another unmanned launch of the Redstone, infuriating Alan Shepard, who was slated to pilot the first sub-orbital flight

HAM COMES HOME

The commander of recovery ship USS Donner greets Ham as he arrives onboard. The capsule overshot its planned splashdown and landed out of sight of the recovery fleet. By the time helicopters reached it, the spacecraft hadjj begun to sink.

(several of the seven already felt slighted by the fact that an ape was taking the lead in the space programme instead of them). A final test of the Mercury-Redstone configuration on 24 March went perfectly, but as it turned out problems with Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule would delay the launch still further. In the meantime, the Soviets were about to seize the initiative, and the headlines, once again.

CHIMP ASCENDING

During the launch of Mercury-Redstone 2, the main engine burned through its fuel supply faster than expected, and Ham had to endure far higher g-forces than intended, peaking at 15 g. He survived unscathed, but the fault also meant that Ham was weightless for more than six-and-a-half minutes - two minutes longer than planned.

HAM GRITS HIS TEETH

Cameras monitored Ham's reactions throughout the flight - during ascent and re-entry, he experienced extreme acceleration, but he quickly recovered and performed his tasks well.

HAM GRITS HIS TEETH

Cameras monitored Ham's reactions throughout the flight - during ascent and re-entry, he experienced extreme acceleration, but he quickly recovered and performed his tasks well.

HAM THE SPACE CHIMP

Captured as an infant in the wild, Ham (1956-83) became part of a colony of chimpanzees established in the late 1950s at Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico. Six of these chimps were recruited by NASA. They were trained to pull a series of levers in the correct order to receive a reward - if they got it wrong, they suffered a mild electric shock. After his flight, Ham retired to the National Zoo at Washington, D.C. and then to North Carolina, { where he died in 1983. Most of the colony were not so lucky, but the last were retired in 1997 and settled at a sanctuary in Florida.

VOSTOK LIFTS OFF

The R-7 launch vehicle carrying Vostok 1 blasts free of the launch pad at Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. Onboord, Gagarin (left) had little freedom to move and still less to influence his spacecraft.

VOSTOK LIFTS OFF

The R-7 launch vehicle carrying Vostok 1 blasts free of the launch pad at Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. Onboord, Gagarin (left) had little freedom to move and still less to influence his spacecraft.

The first man in space

The launch of the first cosmonaut into space on 12 April 1961 shook the world almost as much as the launch of Sputnik 1 three-and-a-half years earlier. Yet Yuri Gagarin's short flight in Vostok 1 almost ended in disaster.

By the end of March 1961, the first Soviet manned spaceflight had been authorized, but who would be on board? The choice was down to two men - the evenly matched friends Gagarin and Titov.

When the State Commission met on 7 April, they agreed that Titov was probably the fitter of the two trainees. However, Gagarin had done a better job of treading the fine line between unquestioning obedience and independent thought, and it was this that won him the coveted prize. The fact that he had a peasant background similar to Khrushchev's own (see panel, right) may also have given him an edge over the middle-class Titov. The choice was made in closed session, but the commission sat again the next day, with Gagarin, Titov, and the cameras present, to repeat its choice in public.

At 5:00am, Moscow time, on 11 April, the R-7 launcher with Vostok 1 attached rolled out along the track leading from the assembly complex to the launch pad at Tyuratam. A day of rehearsal and exhaustive testing followed, and that night the medical team monitored the sleep patterns of Gagarin and his reserve through sensors inside their mattresses (a counterproductive measure, since the two men convinced the doctors they were having a restful night by lying rigid in their beds and barely sleeping at all).

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