Lament For The Iranian Space Monkey

This week, Iran announced that they had successfully launched a monkey into orbit and returned him safely to Earth. And the rest of the world went WTF, Iran? Because really, it’s not 1961. We have a space station, Iran, and I know we don’t let you play on it, but that’s because you do things like launch monkeys into space in 2013.

Only, it turns out that they did no such thing.

It was all a hoax. Which, as baffling as that fact remains, is a second order problem, right behind the assumption that Iran had some legitimate need to launch a monkey into space.¬†They did not, and here’s why:¬†Back in 1961, the US sent Ham the Astrochimp into orbit and safely retrieved him. They did this to see if it was possible to bring a living creature back from orbit safely, because no one had ever done it before. But now that we do it on a regular basis, there’s no need for that data point. This is like North Korea announcing they’ve invented the wheel, only it’s slightly oval and was faked with CG. What do they gain by doing this?

It’s been suggested that they did it (well, not really, but wanted us to think they had done it) in order to test their tech, presumably before they faked a launch with humans. But again, ignoring the hoax, this line of reasoning still doesn’t work. The science for putting a spacecraft into LEO has already been published and made freely available. That’s why Burt Rutan was able to build Spaceship One without having to completely recreate Project Mercury.

Go to your local library (assuming it has access to Eric or Web of Science) and the reference librarian can help you find hundreds of papers detailing the math and specifications for building a spacecraft. you still won’t be able to do it, unless you have a few extra billion dollars laying around, but the hurdle for a manned space mission is no longer a technical concern, it’s one of finances and resources.

In 1999, the Chinese put a taikonaut into orbit. But what they didn’t do was first shoot monkeys at the sky. They looked at where the US and Russians were at, then built their own version. Shenzhou is basically a half step between the Russian Soyuz and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Nothing glamorous, but as first steps go, it made sense from a technical standpoint. Also, it was still impressive. The Chinese went from 0 to Yuri Gagarin in seven years.

Any way you slice it, lobbing monkeys into space is amateur hour. Its usefulness was dubious 60 years ago and today it’d be laughable, if it weren’t so fucking cruel.

Recreating that particular step in the process doesn’t get the Iranians anywhere. It’s not science, it’s sympathetic magic, imitating the steps in the hope that you’ll get the same results.

But of course they didn’t even do that. The Iranian government faked the result, which drives right by sympathetic magic and drops us off in cargo cult territory. They’re building fake monkey rockets in order to impress upon the world that they are making progress in a space program they don’t even have.

I almost feel sorry for the Iranians. Wait, scratch that. I feel sorry for the Iranian Space Monkey, even though she doesn’t exist.