Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ham and Enos

The news from Iraq today is beyond tragic. As inured as I’ve become to the near daily doses of grim news, I actually cried (and yes, I realize how screwed up it is to say "actually") while listening to interviews with children and parents on the scene. Meanwhile, NPR's Daniel Shor offered up another of his smart, cut-to-the-chase editorials, in which he reminded listeners that the investigation of Karl Rove isn't merely about a leak, it's about the [false] justification for a war. (Would like to link to it here, but it doesn't seem to be on-line yet.)

And now for something unrelated, but somehow fitting for tonight: an excerpt from Priscilla Long’s whimsical “Genome Tome: Twenty-three ways of looking at our ancestors,” which appears in the latest American Scholar*.


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 environment” 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.

(*American Scholar is so much the poorer since the departure of editor Anne Fadiman, but I do recommend Long’s essay.)


At 8:49 AM, Blogger What Now? said...

Oh dear. This is all news that is worthy of lament indeed.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger PPB said...

This is heartbreaking.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger meg said...

Given their names, someone was conscious of their grim fates. In the Bible, both Ham and Enos have sons named "Canaan," for one thing. Ham is cursed for mistreating his father (paging Dr. Darwin...), and "Enos" means 'slated for death'.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous YelloCello said...

Yikes. I had some idea about the story behind the name Ham, but I had no idea about the meaning behind "Enos." Thanks for sharing this info.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

For more on this subject check out the documentary One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps at

It is an interesting piece of US history that while heartbreaking has the fortunate element of redemption as the remaining Space Chimp colony has been retired to sanctuary.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger bwana said...

The real story:

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks bwana for the truth, The author of the article represents many so called journalists that lie and misrepresent facts to push their agenda.


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