On the morning of January 31, 1961, in south Florida, a 5-year-old chimpanzee — dubbed “Ham” by his handlers — ate a breakfast of baby cereal, condensed milk, vitamins and half an egg. Then the unassuming 37-pound primate went out and made aeronautic history: Aboard a NASA space capsule, traveling thousands of miles an hour almost 160 miles above the Earth, he became the first chimp in space.
The success of Ham’s flight helped ratchet up even further the already frantic contest for scientific and space supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and briefly made Ham something of a star. Here, on World Animal Day and the first day of World Space Week (October 4-10 every year), LIFE.com commemorates Ham’s 16-minute suborbital mission with photos taken before, during and after his wild ride.
See the photos here.