Updated Monday, January 28, 2013 at 09:31 PM
Iranian state television said Monday that the nation had put a monkey into space “as a prelude to sending humans.” The successful flight involved a relatively small rocket that went straight up and down, according to the state-sponsored news report, and the monkey survived the flight.
Western experts said the brief experiment appeared to have few if any immediate military implications, as it might have if Iran had launched a much larger vehicle that could fly high and fast enough to put a major payload into orbit.
“It doesn’t demonstrate any militarily significant technology,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity. “This is a tiny old rocket, and what’s on top is useful only for doing astronaut stuff.”
Rather, he and other experts said, the exercise seemed to represent a small but significant step in Iran’s stated goal of developing rockets big and advanced enough to send human astronauts into space — a goal that Tehran has repeated publicly for more than a year.
Monday, Iran’s Press TV, a state-run broadcaster, said the monkey had been launched in a space capsule code named Pishgam, or Pioneer.
Charles P. Vick, an expert on Iranian rockets at GlobalSecurity.org, a private research group in Alexandria, Va., said that the flight, if truly successful, showed that Iran was slowly mastering the technology of life support.
“It’s significant in that it shows progress toward manned spaceflight,” he said in an interview.
But Vick urged caution about the Iranian claims, noting media reports suggested that Iran in 2011 had tried and failed to put a monkey into space. He said Iran’s program for human spaceflight was apparently making progress not only in launching animals into space but in developing large new rockets and launching facilities.
This month, he said, Iran unveiled information about a space capsule meant to hold human astronauts.
“It’s based on Chinese technology,” Vick said, adding that Iran had nearly completed a large new launching pad big enough for powerful rockets that could loft warheads, satellites or people into space.
Iran has tested and fielded a growing arsenal of powerful missiles that now threaten Israel and limited parts of Europe. In 2009 and 2011, it successfully put satellites into orbit. Aerospace experts say the orbital steps can help Iran develop long-range missiles that one day might target the United States.
Iran is also pursuing a program to enrich uranium, which can fuel reactors or nuclear warheads atop missiles. For many years, Western powers have failed to persuade Iran to abandon the effort, which they see as aimed at making nuclear arms. Iran has denied that charge and insists that its goals are entirely peaceful.
A year earlier, Iran said it sent a mouse, a turtle and worms into space. The idea of using animals as a precursor to human spaceflight dates to the 1940s and 1950s.
U.S. scientists sent a rhesus monkey into space in 1949 but the animal died when a parachute malfunctioned. The Soviet Union lofted dogs into space in 1951 and they returned to Earth.
In 1957, Moscow’s scientists were the first to launch an animal — a dog called Laika — into orbit. The Soviet Union also won the race to send a human aloft when Yuri A. Gagarin became the first man to orbit the globe in 1961.
Scientists in Iran check a monkey before Monday’s successful launch of the monkey into space.