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Deja Vu

January 29, 2013

One Small Step for Monkeys


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2012: Iran announced this week that they have successfully sent a monkey into space, following in the footsteps of the United States and the former Soviet Union and sparking worldwide speculation about the nation’s rocket capabilities. Western nations have long expressed concern about the role Iran’s space program plays in the country’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. The BBC reports:

The achievement was similar to launching a missile at 4,828km/h (3,000mph) and having its warhead survive the flight—something Iran had done in several tests in recent years, he noted.

However, the survival of the monkey, without incurring any injuries, would demonstrate that the acceleration and deceleration of the rocket were not too severe, satellite technology expert Pat Norris added.

In 2010, Iran successfully sent a rat, turtle and worms into space. But an attempt to send a monkey up in a rocket failed in 2011.

1961: Ham, a chimpanzee, served as an official NASA stand-in for the Mercury Seven, the first group of U.S. pilots chosen for space flight. Ham’s life at NASA and trip into space were documented in a LIFE magazine article that noted the importance of snacks in astronaut training:

Ham the astrochimp is the first earthly creature to do intelligent tasks in space. He and the other astrochimps prepared for this accomplishment at machines where they learned to push levers correctly in response to flashing lights. When they did well, the machine dropped a banana-flavored pellet into a reward cup.

The chimps proved astonishingly smart. One pulled 7,000 levers in 70 minutes, making fewer errors than a visiting human VIP who rashly tried to match his feat. Another made a very practical deduction. Since the machine would give only one pellet a minute, the chimp lazily waited until the last few seconds before pulling the levers which would produce it.

One of the most important chimp incentives proved to be affection, and of that they got plenty. The result showed when Ham’s capsule was opened at sea after his flight. First a hand was thrust out to shake the anxious vet’s, then Ham stepped out, burping proudly.

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The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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