Funky Iranian Space Monkey: Was The Primate Launch A Hoax?

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This week, Iran claimed to have gone where only a few countries have gone before -- sending a primate into space and retrieving it alive. But now, some eagle-eyed observers think there’s something funky about this monkey stunt.

On Monday, Iran’s state news agency broadcast images of a monkey strapped to a harness and said the animal was sent up 75 miles -- technically outer space, but still at a suborbital flight level due to the trajectory of the spacecraft -- in a capsule code-named Pishgam, or “pioneer.” After falling back to Earth, the monkey was then triumphantly displayed for by state media in a miniature silk tuxedo. The entire affair was supposedly a demonstration of the country’s march toward manned missions in space.

However, some viewers spotted discrepancies in this narrative that suggest something is rotten in the state of Iran’s space program.

“It looks like a very different monkey, the nose, the features, everything is different,” Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of Israeli space nonprofit Space Israel, told the Telegraph on Friday.

Whereas the monkey shown in the harness had light-colored fur and a red mole over its right eye, the monkey in the tuxedo was dark-colored and unblemished. A side-by-side comparison makes the switcheroo seem laughably obvious:

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“This means that either the original monkey died from a heart attack after the rocket landed or that the experiment didn’t go that well,” Bash said.

If Iran’s first monkey astronaut perished in the line of duty, he’d join a long line of simian comrades that have perished in space. America’s first attempt to use primate astronauts -- in 1948 -- failed when a V2 rocket exploded midflight, killing its passenger, a rhesus monkey named Albert. Albert II through Albert IV also had similar fates, succumbing variously to explosions or parachute failure.

In 1959, NASA successfully recovered live monkeys after they flew in space -- Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, and Able, a rhesus monkey.

An even simpler explanation for the Iranian launch is that it perhaps never actually took place, and that the Iranian space agency happened to have an extra monkey on hand for its press briefing.

On Monday, Buzzfeed talked to several experts that cast doubts about Iran’s claims.

"I would be surprised if they could do that, but that could be a cover for missile tests again," Robert Farquhar, a space exploration researcher, told Buzzfeed. "I didn't think they had something that could do that, certainly not to recover the monkey again."

Even if Iran was monkeying around with the press, government officials probably aren’t laughing. A fake monkey flight could be a “fig leaf you put on a military program you want to disguise or you want to camouflage," NBC News space consultant James Oberg told Buzzfeed. "It's murky."

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