Cold War Monkey Business

Before astronauts, a scientist destined for UT launched the first chimps into space.

It was 1957, right before the height of the Cold War. Instead of bullets, the opposing sides armed themselves with high-stakes knowledge, using everything from propaganda and espionage to a nuclear arms race and a push for space-exploration supremacy. In America, the days were characterized by grade-school bomb drills. The nights were characterized by fear—fear of the Soviets and of losing the American way of life.

That was the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit. Not to be outdone, President John F. Kennedy ordered NASA to put an animal up into space—within the year. The technological superiority and national security of the United States were at stake. There was only one man for the job: Jerry Fineg.

“I thought, ‘Oh boy, this will be a great challenge!’” says Fineg, who was chief veterinarian on Project Mercury, the NASA initiative that sent the first chimps into space, and later, the longtime director of UT’s Animal Resources Center. Fineg became the go-to guy for anything primate-related—but things didn’t start out that way.

“I chose to be a veterinarian in order to go back to Abilene and practice, because we owned a small sheep ranch there,” Fineg says. “I had no idea I would end up where I did.”

Fineg earned his degree in agriculture from Texas A&M in 1949, then graduated from veterinary school in 1953. After graduation, he joined the Air Force Veterinary Service and was placed in North Africa, where he met his wife, Joan, a nurse.

After giving four years to Uncle Sam, Fineg returned to the States, where he fatefully ended up at Holloman Air Force Base, the location that was to execute Project Mercury.

Using chimpanzees as stand-ins for humans had been on NASA’s radar for a quite a while, since primates are our closest animal relative. NASA sent a team of vets to Africa that brought back baby chimps to begin training immediately.

Fineg’s job was multi-dimensional: he oversaw the animals’ quarantine, ensured they did not carry any infectious diseases or parasites, and gave them extensive physical exams. Fineg and his team were also responsible for dividing the young chimps into groups based on their level of trainability and amenability, and ultimately, choosing the most promising chimps to break through Earth’s atmosphere.

Maybe most importantly, the Holloman team taught the two space chimpanzees—known as Ham and Enos—how to recognize basic colors so they could operate the lever that would control the spacecraft while in orbit. Though Fineg interacted with both animals, the good doctor especially loved the latter chimp, with whom he traveled to Cape Canaveral and oversaw lift-off.

“They were quite different—Ham was easygoing, and Enos was an ornery chimp,” Fineg says. “But Enos was my baby. We had to be careful not to make pets of them. Four- to 5-year-old chimps are very similar to a 4-year-old child.”

After both chimps completed their missions— with no injury or illness, to Fineg ’s delight—NASA became comfortable with sending human astronauts into space. Project Mercury was discontinued, and Fineg moved to a totally different planet: The University of Texas.

Joining the faculty in 1973, Fineg served as both director of UT’s developing animal research facility and professor in, surprisingly, the College of Pharmacy. He taught classes that included veterinary pharmacy and pathology.

“I had to go to Dean Doluisio in the College of Pharmacy to apply for the position, and he asked, ‘What’s it going to cost me?’” Fineg laughs. “I said, ‘Nothing, because they are already paying me to be the animal resource facility director.’ And he gave me the job.”

During his time at UT, Fineg helped design the 70,000-square-foot Animal Resources Center on 27th Street and Speedway, which was a welcome change to the decentralized system the University was used to. The center now provides veterinary consultations for campus research and teaching projects whenever animals are involved and also cares for each species in-house.

“There were animals all over campus, and researchers were having a hard time getting research grants to study them,” Fineg says.

The three-story facility was designed to accommodate a number of species, including rodents, rabbits, dogs, pigs, sheep, frogs, pigeons, and yes, even Fineg’s beloved primates. The Animal Resources Center enabled Fineg to ensure all animals were receiving proper care.

Now retired, Fineg recognizes how decentralized the Animal Resources Center has become. He knows there are animals all over campus once again, ranging from the molecular biology building to the basement of the engineering building, but he approves.

“The decentralization of animal housing started shortly before I retired, and I was glad to see it evolve,” Fineg says. “We were running out of space at the primary unit.”

At the Texas Exes’ retirement community, Longhorn Village, Fineg’s home is now a testament to his life’s work. A sock monkey that his students made him sits inside a “couch,” the restraint system used when the animals were sent into space, on a bookshelf. Outside his front door sits a sculpture of a gorilla head, which he pets lovingly every time he walks past.

“I had no idea I’d ever be involved with chimps,” Fineg says. “It was really just luck of the draw.”

 Top: Fineg checks vitals of Ham, the first chimp to go into space, at Holloman Air Force Base; Middle: Fineg monkeys around with the Holloman primates; Bottom: Glenda, one of the top three furry candidates for space travel.

Photos courtesy U.S. Air Force and Jerry Fineg.


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