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All hail these pioneering primates!

Meet the chimpanzees who had the right stuff to beat the Mercury Seven astronauts into space.

Usually relegated to brief mentions in histories of the space race, the NASA program’s chimps take center stage here as Cusick draws on a mix of interviews and archival sources to present a vividly portrayed, meticulously researched picture of their strenuous training and experiences. Her focus is largely on the two who were actually launched (in 1961, in separate missions)—amiable Ham and surly Enos, who tore his space suit apart and wasn’t above flinging dung at a visiting congressman. But by the time the training program was discontinued in 1970, the so-called “Chimp College” actually had over 100 residents, many of whom bettered human astronauts in feats of endurance. As background to their histories, the author deftly fills in an account of the U.S. space program’s “fast-paced Ping-Pong game” with the Soviet Union, taking particular note of how women were excluded from NASA’s program and of how annoyed the members of the all-male first class of astronauts were at being upstaged by chimps. Also, in tracing the lives of Ham and the rest as they passed from poachers in French Cameroon to final placement in wildlife refuges or (ominously) research labs, Cusick offers readers concerned with animal rights a provocative case study that she supports with specialized resources and activities at the end. “We cannot undo the past,” she writes, “but we can create a new future.”All hail these pioneering primates! (glossary, author’s note, space museums and sites, source notes, index) (Nonfiction. 11-14)

Publishers Weekly

Before Mercury Seven astronauts began their explorations, NASA recruited and trained six chimpanzees to compete with Sputnik, which Cusick (the Get the Scoop series) perceptively depicts in this fascinating work. As part of the Mercury Chimpanzee Training Program, chimps Tiger, Roscoe, Rocky, and Minnie, along with good-natured Ham and cantankerous Enos, attended what NASA coined “Chimp College,” a physically intense training program in which most of the subjects performed better than their human counterparts. After succeeding in operating myriad buttons, handles, and levers under strenuous zero-gravity and g-force conditions, the group was declared flight ready; Ham would become the first U.S. astronaut in space on Jan. 31, 1961. In this thoroughly researched text, the author demonstrates profound sensitivity to issues surrounding the primates’ origins—some were obtained from poachers—and recounts the chimps at play and work and interacting with their human trainers. By touching on subjects of animal rights and experimentation, as well as gender equity within Homo sapiens society, Cusick breathes life into a seldom heard story and reminds readers that while “we cannot undo the past... we can create a new future.” A glossary, author’s note, resources, and further notes conclude. Ages 8–12.

Foreword Reviews
Memorializing the unsung space travelers whom the US first launched into orbit, Dawn Cusick’s charming history book The Astrochimps zooms in on peculiar and enlightening moments in the race to put a person on the moon.
In the wake of the Soviet Union launching the first satellite into space, agents of a top-secret NASA space program bought dozens of chimpanzees from zoos, poachers, and exotic bird farms. Alongside the development of spaceships, innovative training and research methods made these intelligent primates into ideal astronauts and test subjects. This is the story of the ethically-fraught yet unbelievable role that six such chimpanzees played in the Space Race. As Cusick reveals, it was an astrochimp named Ham who paved the way for both Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd, the first Soviet and American human beings in space—but not the first astronauts.

The text zips through the initial training sessions in which the chimpanzees “bounced off the walls in a chorus of chaos,” moving toward practice in the notorious “Bored Room” where the social animals sat alone for long hours to imitate the experience of being alone in a rocket in space. Poignant and hilarious photographs document the frowned upon relationships that blossomed between the chimpanzees and their human pilots and veterinarians. Terminology specific to the aerospace technology is included, though the improbable jealousy of Mercury Seven’s human astronauts-to-be toward the astrochimps is more engrossing—a revealing behind-the-scenes look at John Glenn and Alan Shepherd’s mindsets. Also included are idiosyncratic glimpses at world politics, though even these foreground the animals among anecdotes about John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.

The Astrochimps is an exciting, specialized history of the Space Race.