Ham the Astrochimp, as he came to be known, is named for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, the lab located on New Mexico's Holloman Air Force Base that prepared him for his historic flight into space. Born and captured by trappers in Cameroon, Ham was one of 40 chimpanzees purchased by the Air Force and used to test flight equipment at Holloman. The Chosen One, Ham launched into space aboard the Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, so engineers could test his vital signs. Upon his successful return, Ham spent 17 years living at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and a second zoo in North Carolina before his death in 1983.
On the morning of January 31, 1961, a 5-year-old chimpanzee named "Ham" ate a breakfast of baby cereal, condensed milk, vitamins, and half an egg. Then the playful 37-pound primate went out into the Cape Canaveral light and made aeronautic history: Aboard a NASA space capsule -- and traveling almost 160 miles above the Earth -- he became the first chimp in space. The launch's success helped ratchet up even further the already-frantic contest for scientific supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- and briefly made Ham something of a star. Here, on the 50th anniversary of that momentous, 16-minute "headlong trip through outer space's underbelly" (as Time magazine called the flight), LIFE.com presents rare and previous unpublished photographs taken before, during, and after Ham's wild ride -- pictures that capture an era when technology, politics, ideology, and propaganda converged in an era-defining struggle known as the Space Race.
Read the full story -- and view a gallery of photographs -- at LIFE.