Last week, Iran announced that they had launched a monkey into outer space and returned it safely to the earth. They claimed that this was a major milestone in Iranian aerospace technology and paved the way for human space launches.
The stunt was stupid, pointless and proved nothing. For one thing, the rocket barely went into space at all. The payload did not make it to orbit or even achieve an altitude sufficient for orbit. It was a simple up-down ballistic flight. The rocket reportedly reached an altitude of 75 statute miles. That’s hardly a major technical achievement. The Germans were launching missiles to similar altitudes back during World War II and any reasonably sized short range ballistic missile can reach such altitudes. Just point a scud missile straight up and fire it to maximum altitude and this is what you get.
Putting a monkey in the nose-cone of a short range missile is also not very impressive. It has no real scientific value, either. Back in the 1950′s, when the US was sending monkeys and chimps into space, and the Soviet Union was sending dogs and guinea pigs, it was not known if mammals could survive he stresses of launch and extended periods of weightlessness. Of course, it’s now known that they can and that humans can indeed function in space, so there’s little knowledge to be gained from sending a monkey into space for a few minutes.
It’s not a huge technical feat either. A ballistic flight to those altitudes will not result in a huge amount of reentry heating or stress on the payload. There’s no need for precise de-orbiting burns or control of where it lands (since it will invariably land in the general vicinity of the launch). The only thing needed to assure the monkey makes it back alive is a capsule that is air tight and parachute system to deploy as it falls back to earth.
Yet simple and unimpressive as putting a monkey on a scud may be, numerous media reports have begun to question whether Iran is being honest about what happened. For one thing, while video of the rocket launch was quickly publicized, there has been no video provided of the recovery of the monkey. That seems strange, since recovering the payload and showing that the monkey is fine would be every bit as important as launching the rocket.
Additionally, the images shown of the post-mission monkey look considerably different than the photos of the monkey before launch. The most obvious difference is that the monkey purported to have been launched on the rocket has a mole above its right eye while the monkey shown after the launch has no such mole. Beyond this, the facial features seem slightly different, the fur distribution is not the same and the color is also noticeably different, although this could be the result of camera and lighting conditions.
Since this discrepancy has come to light, Iranian officials have responded by stating that the photos do indeed show two different animals, but that this was simply a mistake in their release. One of the monkeys is the actual monkey that was launched into space while the other was an archive photo of one of the other monkeys that was part of the program. Iran has stated that they had five candidate monkeys ready for the flight.
It’s possible that this is the case, but there is still some reason to question the validity of this claim. The post-launch monkey is clearly the one that Iran has claimed was on the rocket, as pictures of the monkey being shown to dignitaries and presented publicly have been shown. Yet no pictures of that monkey seem to have been published before the launch. The pre-launch monkey (the one with the mole) appears in numerous pictures including those of the monkey strapped into a harness for launch. It’s possible that this was just part of the testing and training protocol, but it’s still a bit strange that many pictures of the same monkey could be mistakenly released.
If the photos were indeed faked, with a stand-in monkey intentionally used for post-launch photographs, then the most likely explanation is that the monkey did not survive the trip. It’s entirely possible that the parachute recovery system on the capsule malfunctioned or that the capsule failed to separate from the rocket. It is also possible that the capsule either lacked sufficient breathing air to keep the monkey alive or was not recovered before the supply of fresh air was depleted.
Such problems are not uncommon and indeed the United States lost six monkeys during rocket tests in the late 1940′s before one finally survived the trip. One monkey died due to lack of oxygen in the capsule. One died when the V-2 rocket exploded and another three died as a result of parachute malfunctions. Finally, in 1951, a monkey was launched on a US rocket and made it back alive. In 1959, the US suffered a high profile loss when a monkey named Gordo died, again, due to a parachute malfunction. Yet another monkey died when an Atlas rocket exploded.
If Iran did indeed fail to recover the monkey, it seems perfectly in line with the general culture of the Iranian government to try to cover up the loss. Iran is not prone to admitting failure, even when there is strong evidence to indicate so. Failing at such a basic and relatively easy technical feat would certainly be an embarrassment.
On the other hand, if there was a genuine photo mixup and Iran manage to launch a monkey on a rocket, it really does not prove anything. This kind of achievement might be groundbreaking in the 1940′s, but today it’s nothing more than a stunt and not a very impressive one either. Iran had already claimed to have launched rats, worms and turtles into space on a similar rocket. Launching a monkey is no more of an accomplishment. In fact, it could just have easily been a brick.