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Macaque and Dagger in the Simian Space Race

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Why does the U.S. suspect Iran of faking their monkey space flight? Because we did it first.

"Iranian Space Monkey (Espionage)" by Nathaniel Gold

"Iranian Space Monkey (Espionage)" by Nathaniel Gold

It was a blistering hot summer, as it usually is in that part of the world. The monkey’s arms and legs were tightly strapped to a metal chair as the forlorn creature was pushed into the narrow confines of the rocket’s nose cone. Scientific instruments dominated the compartment and the young rhesus macaque’s head was wrenched downwards in order to fit. As the launch countdown approached zero it was clear that something was wrong. There was no indication of heart action or respiration. But it was too late to stop the experiment.

The decommissioned rocket shook violently as alcohol and liquid oxygen ignited in the burn chamber, pushing twenty-eight thousand pounds of steel and fuel upwards against the force of gravity. After reaching a height of 37 miles the nose cone separated from the now depleted rocket but the parachute system malfunctioned sending the capsule and its occupant plummeting back towards Earth. After slamming into the desert sands at more than two thousand miles per hour the capsule was so badly deformed that even if the monkey had survived the initial ascent his death would have been a foregone conclusion.

The United States’ first attempt to put a monkey into space ended in failure on June 11, 1948 at a remote military launch site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Albert I, named after the rhesus macaque on board, would soon be joined by Alberts II – VI as one monkey after another died because of mechanical failure or miscalculation.

Sixty-three years later a similar fate appears to have befallen Iran’s first primate to be shot into space. According to Deputy Science Minister Mohammad Mehdinejad-Nouri, Iran’s attempt to fire a Kavoshgar-5 rocket with a live monkey on board in September, 2011 failed to launch the Islamic Republic into the simian space age.

“The launch was not publicised as all of its anticipated objectives were not accomplished,” Mehdinejad-Nouri cryptically told reporters the following month.

It was footage of this first monkey that appears to be the source of claims that Iran faked their launch on January 28th, 2013. Soon after Iran’s announcement that they successfully sent a monkey into space and returned him alive, skeptics pointed out that the before and after photos clearly showed two very different monkeys. Before the launch the pictured macaque had an identifiable mole above his right eye that was missing in the one said to have returned.

But according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global space launches, the explanation is that there was a photo mix up between the 2011 and 2013 monkey space travellers.

“The monkey with the mole was the one launched in 2011 that died. The rocket failed. It did not get into space,” McDowell told the Associated Press. “They just mixed that footage with the footage of the 2013 successful launch.” Nevertheless, conspiracy theories swirled on the internet over the discrepancy and were confirmed for many after the United States government continued to raise doubts about the flight.

“There are a lot of questions about whether the monkey that they reportedly sent up into space and reportedly came down was actually the same monkey – whether he survived,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland during a press briefing.

However, the United States may have good reason to suspect that Iran is using its monkey launch to hide more nefarious activities. Our country did exactly that at the dawn of the space race.

Soviet Sputnik Propaganda

Soviet propaganda poster from 1959. Caption reads "The creative resources of socialism are endless."

In June, 1959 the Soviet Union was the acknowledged leader in space flight technology. Two years earlier the Communist government had successfully launched the satellites Sputnik 1 and 2–the latter of which carried the dog Laika into orbit–and the United States military was concerned about a “satellite gap.” Research money poured into the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as well as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). While the latter was directly tasked with military applications of space research, the civilian-led NASA was intimately tied to the Department of Defense from its inception.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) was the one Federal agency with which NASA had to come to terms in order to carry out its mission at all,” states NASA’s own history, “Indeed, few areas of NASA’s R&D [Research and Development] were without potential military application.” This overlap made it possible for an ostensibly scientific enterprise to be co-opted for classified military aims.

To determine the scope of Russia’s space program and gather strategic intelligence President Dwight Eisenhower authorized Project Discoverer, a series of research space launches that were actually a front for covert espionage. As space historians Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs relate in their book Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle (Springer London, 2007), “Project Discoverer was mostly a meticulous sham, created to disguise the true purpose of the programme, which was to launch a highly-classified series of spy satellites known as Argon, Lanyard and Corona.” The plan was to place a top-secret spy satellite into orbit that would photograph the Soviet Union and Sino-Soviet Bloc countries and then retrieve the film for processing and analysis.

In order to perpetuate the false flag operation hundreds of technicians and scientists were appointed to the Discoverer program, with many more employed in support positions at various institutions. Engineers were charged with adapting a newly designed satellite recovery vehicle to support live mice and monkeys for at least 26 hours in orbit. A cylindrical container was designed with an inbuilt life-support system that provided oxygen while also reducing humidity and the carbon dioxide that would accumulate through exhalation. The biopack would even dispense water and apple wedges that were dipped in paraffin wax to prevent them from spoiling.

In all, 31 rhesus monkeys were involved with the program and trained in a series of psychomotor tests to be performed while in orbit. Dr. Wade Lynn Brown (see the video above), director of psychology at the University of Texas, was appointed to oversee their training after his earlier success with the Mercury-Little Joe 2 project put a monkey by the name of Sam into low Earth orbit. Over a period of several weeks the animals were conditioned to being strapped into a padded chair and trained to pull a lever whenever a red light came on. Electric shocks would be administered to the monkeys’ feet whenever they pulled the lever at the wrong time.

For the scientists, the purpose was to test if extended periods of weightlessness interfered with cognitive processes that would slow reaction time for later human astronauts. The three highest performing monkeys then underwent surgery during which stainless steel wires were anchored to cartilage in the animals’ chest, back and groin. A single lead emerged through an incision underneath their arm and was connected to sensors that would transmit EKG information during their 17 Earth orbits.

Kingery and 21X

Carolyn Kingery, a haematology technician at the University of Texas, with the prime monkey candidate in the Discoverer program known only as 21X. (Photo: USAF)

None of the scientists involved had any inkling as to the true nature of the Discoverer program, in fact their ignorance was integral to the success of the operation. Propaganda photos of the monkeys in training were taken by the Air Force’s Office of Information to be given to the media and press releases were prepared in Washington. Eisenhower and various generals even posed for photographs with one of the Discoverer capsules, the President’s broad grin emphasizing the “peaceful” nature of the satellite.

On August 18, 1960, after three days in orbit, Discoverer XIV was recovered over the Pacific Ocean and secretly transported to Rochester, New York with its valuable cargo. There was no monkey on board. Just prior to launch the scientists were abruptly told that their biomedical research had been cancelled and all were quietly reassigned to other projects. But the Corona satellite mission’s true purpose was a resounding success. The images received from the spy satellite revealed more than 1,650,000 miles of never before seen Russian territory, including the first photograph of the Mys Shmidta airfield in the Soviet Arctic used as a staging base for intercontinental bombers.

“In a single space mission,” writes Burgess and Dubbs, “Corona had provided more images of Soviet territory than the entire U-2 spy plane programme.”

While the techniques developed during the Discoverer project would be reapplied on later orbital tests–most famously the Mercury-Redstone 2 project that sent the chimpanzees Ham and Enos into orbit–the scientists involved wouldn’t know the true purpose of the project until President Clinton declassified the operation in 1995. All of the monkeys used in the program either died in subsequent experimental failures or were sent to various government labs for a range of biomedical testing. Their involvement, as it is with all of the animals sacrificed during the space race, remain a largely forgotten chapter in our history of scientific discovery.

Iran’s recent announcement that they launched their own monkey into space–and their earlier revelation of a nearly completed space center from which they plan to launch domestic satellites into orbit–is just the latest in a newly emerging space race taking place in Asia. While China remains far in the lead with their manned space program, if Iran’s recent launch is genuine it shows that they are significantly ahead of India and other neighbouring countries.

Just as it was with the United States and the Soviet Union, space technology translates directly into geopolitical and economic power. In this way, Iran’s commitment to space technology signals its intention to be a regional power center. However, it is unlikely that their developing space program poses much of a threat to the United States.

“A slight monkey on a suborbital flight is nothing to get too excited about,” said John Logsden, a space policy professor emeritus at George Washington University in an interview with the Associated Press. “They’re following the path that we followed more than half a century ago.”

But the question US military and intelligence personnel are asking themselves is just how closely Iran is following in our footsteps. In the cloak and dagger world of covert affairs, sending a monkey into space could suggest a great deal more than meets the eye.

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. greg_t_laden 10:43 am 02/14/2013

    Please don’t tell me that the moon shots were faked too!

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 6:12 pm 02/14/2013

    Very funny. But there actually have been many other covert operations perpetrated through what was thought to be an exclusively civilian enterprise, like the STS missions reviewed by Air & Space magazine in August 2009:

    Between 1982 and 1992, NASA launched 11 shuttle flights with classified payloads, honoring a deal that dated to 1969, when the National Reconnaissance Office—an organization so secret its name could not be published at the time—requested certain changes to the design of NASA’s new space transportation system. The NRO built and operated large, expensive reconnaissance satellites, and it wanted a bigger shuttle cargo bay than NASA had planned. The spysat agency also wanted the option to fly “once around” polar missions, which demanded more flexibility to maneuver for a landing that could be on either side of the vehicle’s ground track.

    “NRO requirements drove the shuttle design,” says Parker Temple, a historian who served on the policy staff of the secretary of the Air Force and later with the NRO’s office within the Central Intelligence Agency. The Air Force signed on to use the shuttle too, and in 1979 started building a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern California for reaching polar orbits.

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  3. 3. George Smith 11:30 pm 02/14/2013

    “Just as it was with the United States and the Soviet Union, space technology translates directly into geopolitical and economic power.”
    Might it really be the other way around?

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  4. 4. EricMJohnson 1:11 am 02/15/2013

    Certainly nations require a strong economic and political foundation before they can even consider a space program. This technology is expensive after all. But the reason why countries will go to such great expense is because of the commercial and strategic advantage they hope to gain as a result. Satellite communication is essential for modern economies and is increasingly important for military power (e.g. drone technology and navigational systems).

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  5. 5. Chris Dubbs 11:10 am 02/19/2013

    Great article. I’m willing to take Iran at its word, however, that it wants large rockets to launch satellites and humans into space. In which case, animal flights can serve a useful purpose in the testing of capsules. The fact that those same rockets would have a military purpose is so obvious that I don’t think any “US military and intelligence personnel” need to bother asking themselves that question.

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