Iran’s Space Program: Monkey Business for Now
Image Credit: Flickr (nike6)

Iran’s Space Program: Monkey Business for Now

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On 28 January, Iran claimed it had successfully sent a monkey into space and brought it back alive. If the report is true, it would represent a significant technological breakthrough for Iran, which is seeking to join the ranks of space-faring nations.

Western nations inevitably see Tehran’s space plans as a cover for its nuclear program, particularly the development of long-range missile capabilities. Just as predictably, Iran denies that any covert military intentions lurk behind its space program. Officials have said that the country merely hopes to boost its earthquake monitoring and imaging capabilities, while boosting its telecommunications sector.

The United States was quick to downplay the event, expressing doubts over Iranian claims of a successful launch. Reports circulated that the monkey shown by Tehran in state media was missing a wart it had before the alleged flight. This perceived inconsistency fueled speculation that two different monkeys may have been used. Meanwhile, questions were raised about whether the launch had taken place at all.  

Tehran insisted that the monkey made it into space and returned safely, shifting blame to the Iranian press, which was accused of using a photo of a backup monkey instead of the actual space-faring one. After the Iranian press beamed images of a petrified primate for the whole world to see, some raised concerns over the simian’s treatment.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland referred to “the poor little monkey”, while a spokesman from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said the organization was “appalled by photos of a visibly terrified monkey crudely strapped into a restraint device in which he was allegedly launched into space.”

It did not end there.  On February 4, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad volunteered to be the first Iranian astronaut, prompting U.S. senator John McCain to compare President Ahmadinejad and the monkey.  McCain mockingly tweeted, “So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space – wasn't he just there last week?” The State Department’s tone was more nuanced, stating that Ahmadinejad was an “interesting choice” for a manned space launch.

Comedic relief aside, Iran has long tried to boost its fledgling space program with its hopes of sending a man into space by 2020 and landing on the moon by 2025. In 2009, it launched its first satellite into orbit, followed by worms, turtles and a rat, which it sent into space in 2010.  Tehran’s space ambitions received a setback in October 2011, however, when it failed in its first attempt to send a monkey into space.

Iran may still be a long way from sending humans into space, but if the latest launch was successful as claimed, it represents a crucial step along the path towards developing a human spaceflight program.

The pace of development of the country’s space program could be a cause for international concern as Tehran purportedly accelerates its building of a secret facility to launch satellites in the southeastern province of Sistan.

The satellite launch came just ahead of a new round of talks between Iran and Western powers on Tehran’s nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty. The talks scheduled for February 26 will bring together officials from Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

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