ROGERSVILLE — This year marks the 60th anniversary of Project Mercury’s success in sending a chimpanzee named Enos into orbit, an event that was witnessed firsthand by Rogersville resident Willie Ogden, who took care of Enos after the splashdown.
Ogden contacted the Times News after reading Ned Jilton’s column in Wednesday’s edition about animals that paved the way for manned space flights.
A native of Indiana, Ogden joined the Air Force in 1951 and initially served in its police force. Eventually, his work began to involve sentry dogs, and later he became an Air Force veterinary technician.
The veterinarian he was assigned to was in charge of setting up recovery teams all around the world for the Project Mercury operations. Project Mercury was established in 1958 with the goal of putting a man into Earth orbit and returning him safely.
In 1961, Project Mercury sent two chimpanzees into space: first Ham, who didn’t orbit the Earth in January; and then Enos, who orbited the planet 2.5 times in November aboard the Mercury Atlas 5.
Ogden, who was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, wasn’t supposed to be part of the Enos rescue team.
“One day I went to work and got to the office, and my veterinarian came in and said, ‘I need you to go home and pack a suitcase for at least two weeks,’ ” Ogden told the Times News. “He said, no civilian clothes. He told me to hurry and he’d tell me about it later.”
Ogden later found out he was replacing a rescue team member who had suffered a back injury. He flew to Norfolk, where he boarded the destroyer USS Stormes, which sailed to an area about 300 miles south of Bermuda. After a while he heard a radio broadcast that Enos was in orbit and doing OK. The plan was for Enos to orbit the Earth three times.
“He went around the world once, and twice, and then they said he’s running low on oxygen and they’re bringing him down in our area,” Ogden said. “We pulled right up beside the capsule, and the Navy guys hooked up to it and lifted that thing up onto the ship, and he was all ours. We had to blow the hatch and then slide him on out.”
Ogden added, “He was jabbering up a storm. Making noise. Talking. They said he was real low on oxygen, but he had a little spot where he could look through a window, and I got those screws off and got that out of the way where I knew he could breathe and get air, and then it took a while to get (him out of the capsule).”
Enos liked to stay busy. During the flight, he successfully completed more than 5,200 operations. He had two plastic tubes, one that gave him a tasty banana pellet when he accomplished so many tasks, and the other that gave him a drink of water for completing tasks.
Ogden recalled that Enos completed tasks faster than the machine could reward him, and he chewed the ends off the rubber tubes trying to get to the treats.
Enos also managed to undo a secured zipper on his suit and pull out his catheter, which later resulted in him experiencing quite a bit of discomfort.
Back on Earth, Ogden and his team took precautions because Enos had previously bitten off the end of a handler’s finger during training. Enos didn’t cause them any problems, however.
“He was pretty calm,” Ogden said. “I knew he was thirsty the way he was acting, so I asked the sailors to go get me an apple and an orange. When they got back I asked them to cut it in fours, and I took that quarter wedge of orange and stuck it (under his lower lip). He sucked that thing bone dry. When he got done with that, I put a quarter piece of apple in there, and he consumed it real fast.”
Enos had wires inserted into his ankle and leg that allowed Mission Control to monitor his heart and other vital signs. Ogden had to remove those wires and put stitches in his leg.
“We had that stainless steel cage, and we put him inside there and were sitting there doing our paperwork,” he said. “I looked down in that cage and he was sticking his finger out. I thought, what the heck is he doing? I looked down and he had undone all of his stitches and shoved them out. He wanted something to do.”
Ogden sent a sailor to retrieve a 12-foot piece of rope and tie knots in it. They then gave the knotted rope to Enos, who enjoyed undoing the knots, which he accomplished fairly quickly.
“I went back to doing my paperwork, and after about a half-hour to an hour he started pushing that rope out,” Ogden said. “He had to be doing something all the time.”
They sailed to Bermuda and flew into Patrick Air Force Base the next morning. By the time Ogden arrived the following day to do a follow-up exam on Enos, his trainer had arrived from New Mexico and the two had a conversation while Enos was there.
Apparently Enos liked Ogden.
“He (Enos) came over to me and patted me on the leg,” Ogden said.
Sadly, Enos didn’t enjoy a long life like his space chimp colleague Ham (1957-83), who lived in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., for 17 years before joining a small group of captive chimps at North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in 1980.
Enos died of dysentery on Nov. 4, 1962, less than a year after orbiting the Earth.
Enos was the third primate to orbit the planet after Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. His flight was a rehearsal for the next Mercury launch on Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn became first American to orbit Earth.
Ogden, who is now 89, retired from the Air force in 1971, and then worked for an aerospace company before retiring and moving to Rogersville in 1993.
Although his time in the Mercury Project was “short and sweet,” he is proud of the small contribution he made to the manned space exploration that would follow.
“At first I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “It was my job, and I did it and moved on. But later after the astronauts went up I said, ‘Hey, we made it safe for them to go up.’ That made me feel pretty good.”