Image grab from Iran's Al-Alam TV showing an Iranian scientist holding a live monkey strapped into a chair, which the Tehran-based Arab-language channel said they sent up into space in a capsule and later retrieved intact.Getty
Iran's reported launching of a monkey into space on Monday may have been little more than a publicity stunt, aimed at inflating the country's human space ambitions, rather than a display of growing technological prowess.
"If your goal is make your ballistic missiles more accurately deliver weapons this is not the most efficient way to do it," said Brian Weeden, technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation in Washington DC.
Iranian state television reported Monday that the nation had put a monkey into space "as a prelude to sending humans."
The suborbital flight, similar to those flown more than 50 years ago in the early days of NASA's Mercury program, reportedly reached an altitude of about 75 miles above the planet's surface before re-entering the atmosphere, though where the monkey's Pishgam -- or 'Pioneer' -- capsule landed or splashed down was not revealed. Also withheld was the exact launch date, time and launch site.
Iran's Press TV, a state-run broadcaster, said the monkey survived. The report quoted Hamid Fazeli, the director of the Iran Space Agency, predicting that Iran would launch a human into space within the next five to eight years, The New York Times reports.
"Either they are doing it for the publicity and the attention for their space program or they are serious about one day having a human spaceflight program," Weeden told Discovery News.
And while a capsule that returns to Earth could provide information about missile re-entry technology, it's not the most direct path.
"The United States didn't rely on Mercury and Apollo to development ballistic missile technology," Weeden said.
Screenshot form Iran state TV of the Kavoshgar rocket that apparently launched a monkey on Monday.Getty
What launching animals into space does demonstrate is the ability to protect living creatures from the vacuum and radiation environment of space and to provide life support.
"It's a step toward developing human spaceflight capability that we took over 50 years ago. We launched a bunch of monkeys -- and killed a few of them," John Logsdon, the former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.
"Iran has the stated intention of being one of the top 10 or so space countries and the ability to launch people is part of that," Logsdon told Discovery News. "It's better for them to launch monkeys than warheads."
Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, says the launch is the latest rendition of what she calls "a Kabuki dance" by a trio of aspiring space powers, China, India and Iran.
"It's all part of what I see as an Asian space race where nobody wants to be the country without the capabilities that their neighbors have. It's a classic security dilemma where once one country does it, it spirals up and everybody else has to get involved," Johnson-Freese said.
"Space technology is dual-use and everybody wants to be a part of it. And if they get some prestige out of it, that's great too," she said. "There's a lot of Kabuki dancing going on."