ONE OF THIS country's space pioneers and a longtime resident of Washington died in North Carolina on Wednesday at the age (as his obituary put it) of "about 26." Ham the chimpanzee risked his life for his country in 1961 when he hurtled into space in what should now be regarded as a very primitive space capsule on an experimental suborbital run. Those of us who are older than about-26 well remember the excitement and suspense--even the dread-- that attended his voyage. For it was not known whether the chimpanzee would survive the shocks and rigors of the trip. And it was widely supposed that even if he did survive, he would have been severely impaired emotionally, rendered a simpering idiot--scared out of his wits. There was much criticism of the mission on this cruel account.

Imagine the general astonishment, then, when the bobbing capsule, retrieved from a turbulent sea, was opened to find the beaming visage whose most famous photo we reproduce here. Never mind that the capsule, through an error, had been shot 40 miles higher than planned or that it had landed 130 miles past the target area where a fleet awaited it or that it had been traveling 5,000 miles an hour, 800 miles faster than planned. Ham rose to the occasion and took it all in stride. As a news account of the period reminds us: "During the time radio signals were received the chimp pushed various levers and performed other behavior tasks assigned him." His trip paved the way for the flights of the human astronauts.

Then what happened? Well, Ham retired to the Washington National Zoo, where he lived for the better part of the next 20 years. He moved to North Carolina in 1981. And he died the other day, as we said, at the age of about-26. Meaning no harm to Bonzo, we would say that Ham was the nation's First Chimp. He was a great American and a really swell ape.