I’m a big fan of monkeys, especially when they’re in the wild and not in zoos. However, I also appreciate all that monkeys and apes have done for humans … and not just in a Darwinish kind of way. That’s why I’m puzzled by the announcement that the Russian space program is training monkeys to send to Mars in 2017. Haven’t we been here before?
The Russian Academy Of Science is training four rhesus macaques – selected for their smarts and ability to learn – to use a joystick and solve computer puzzles. The right answer gets the monkey a sip of juice. The wrong answer … a trip to Venus instead? Dr. Inessa Kozlovskaya says the goal is to train the monkeys to perform a range of tasks and then have them pass these skills on to other monkeys. Does this sound like a good move or a bad movie?
Here’s some bad news for the monkeys … there’s no word on whether they’ll be taught how to fly back from Mars. Of course, they could have learned the consequences of working for humans in space from the history of monkeys in space.
The first monkey in space was a rhesus named Albert who flew 39 miles in a V2 rocket on June 11, 1948. Albert died of suffocation on the V2. He was followed a year later by Albert II, who was the first to pass the 100 km (62 mile) delimiter of space but whose V2 crashed on its return. A few months later, Albert III (a cynomolgus monkey) died in a V2 explosion and Albert IV’s V2 also crashed. Albert V crashed in an Aerobee rocket while Albert VI landed successfully but died two hours later. Changing names didn’t help. In 1958, Gordo (a squirrel money) died when the nose cone’s parachute failed.
On May 28, 1959, Able, a rhesus monkey, and Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, became the first monkeys to successfully return to Earth from a trip to space. Other rhesus monkeys also returned safely but were replaced during the Mercury program by chimpanzees. Monkeys continued to be used in the U.S. space program until 1985 when two squirrel monkeys flew on a space shuttle to Spacelab 3 and back.
The Russian space program began using monkeys in the early 1980s and the current project is part of that program, although the last were sent in 1997 and the program was suspended when one of those monkeys died.
Now the Russians are training monkeys for Mars. Aren’t we beyond this technologically … and ethically? Do the Russian know something about traveling to Mars that we don’t? Are they trying to trick the Martians into thinking we’re not that advanced?
Let’s hope for the monkeys’ sake they’re named Ivan and not Albert.