After earning his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University in 1949, Dr. Jerry Fineg’s dream was to work as a veterinarian and manage his family’s ranch near Abilene. He never imagined that his love of animals would take him all over the world – and bring him close to outer space.
As an Air Force veterinarian, he was assigned to the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“That was the test lab for the Air Force to do experiments for aircraft survival,” Fineg said. “They had a large chimpanzee colony there, so I became very interested in laboratory animal medicine. I got lucky because being there I got involved in the space program.”
Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program of the United States running from 1958 through 1963. Mercury spanned 20 unmanned developmental missions involving test animals before the first man was sent into space.
Though he didn’t travel to space himself, Fineg was charged with managing the chimpanzees used in those early space missions.
“As veterinarians, we were responsible for getting, training and assisting in the training of the chimpanzees for the space program,” Fineg said. “We selected about eight chimpanzees, and then we took four to the Cape.”
A chimpanzee named Ham was the first to go into space on January 31, 1961. The mission received national media attention and Ham was featured on the cover of Life magazine. The Life article features photos of Fineg with the chimp. Two weeks later, another chimp named Enos launched into space and orbited around the Earth two and a half times. Both animals returned safely.
In 1973, after a 20-year career in the Air Force, Fineg retired. But retirement didn’t slow him down at all. He was offered a position as the director of the Animal Resources Center at The University of Texas at Austin, a position he would hold for the next 33 years.
“Both careers were very, very good,” Fineg said. “I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time.”
These days, Fineg enjoys playing golf, spending time with family and taking part in the many activities offered at Longhorn Village, where he resides. At the age of 88, he still manages to stay very active.