Early in the space race, the United States was determined to get data that would prove that man could travel into outer space. Short of actually sending a man in to space, the best way to test this theory was to send up test animals and see if they could survive. The Soviets had already launched Sputnik 2, with its canine astronaut Laika, though Laika had died in orbit. After a suborbital flight in 1959 in which a rhesus monkey and a squirrel monkey survived, chimpanzees were the next logical step. Biologically close to humans, chimps would give the scientists a better idea of what space travel could do to the human body. This is the story of Chang/Subject 65—called “Ham” by his handler—who was the first chimp in space.
Vining’s moving tale is mostly history, with just a touch of fiction mixed in to encourage readers to sympathize with the chimps of the space program. That empathy is well-placed, too, as those chimps were considered test materials and disposed of as surplus at the end of the program. The humans—scientists, medical personnel, and military—are almost interchangeable, which works from the chimps’ point of view, but I would have liked a listing of the major players, so that I could research them myself if desired. That change, along with the possible addition of a timeline, is all that would be needed to make this book perfectly suited towards research. Even without those elements, though, this book is still strong for shining a light on a less well-known portion of the space program.
The art in this work is strong. Almost completely black and white with little shading, the drawings are clear, even in the details about the hand motions that the chimps learned to do in order to help during the launch. The characters, mostly men, have a strong-jawed, early 60s, all-American-ness to them, though there are no photo references to tell how close they are drawn to reality. The realities of death and illness are not glossed over either, though the drawings of the darker scenes are not gratuitous.
First in Space, paired with Nick Abadzis’ Laika (from First Second), gives readers a strong look at the unwitting sacrifices made by the animals who paved mankind’s way into space. Vining makes clear that Ham and his companions did not end their days as American heroes and tells readers how they can help change that tragedy. A good addition to classroom studies of the space race.
First in Space
Oni Press, 2007