Time for space program to start monkeying around again

By Ted Blankenship | February 5, 2021

Monkey is hanging on a branch and holding a banana on a white background.

I’m sure you have noticed that we’re back in the space business in a big way. After years of paying the Russians big bucks to haul our astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station, we now have our own taxi service. 

Not only that, we’re sending more women to the station, and there is now a new branch of the the armed services for astronauts. I don’t know what we’ll call them — maybe Spaceguys and Spacegals. Maybe not. 

But amidst all of this activity, I’m wondering, WHERE ARE THE MONKEYS?

These pioneers of the space program are being left out! This should not happen. If Elon Musk can launch his personal Tesla roadster into space, why are qualified monkeys and apes denied? 

Don’t laugh. Long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking around on the moon, the hero of the U.S. space program was a chimpanzee named Ham. 

On Jan. 31, 1961—a few months before Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight—Ham became the first hominid in space. He survived his mission and went on to live a long life. 

In 1948 the Air Force strapped a rhesus monkey named Albert into a capsule on top of a souped-up Nazi-designed V-2 rocket and launched it from New Mexico. Unfortunately, Albert died before he made it into space. Other monkeys followed with more success.

They were taught to twist dials and flip switches in the capsule to prove that it was possible to function in space. 

You know, of course, that monkeys and apes are different. Apes and gorillas are both apes, but monkeys, though related, aren’t the same. They have tails and apes don’t. 

That may be why monkeys are currently grounded. Their tails are designed to help them swing through trees. Imagine how this would work out at the Space Station. Say a monkey latches onto a protuberance inside the station and uses his tail to swing into the next room. The lack of gravity might cause the swinging monkey to propel him or herself right through the wall of the space station, creating a serious problem. 

Or as the late John Glenn said when asked what would have happened if his Mercury capsule heat shield had burned up on re-entry: “It would have been a bad day all around.”

But if monkeys could be trained to use their tails discreetly, they could make interesting space station companions. They would not tell boring stories over and over. They would take up less space so we could send lots more of them per rocket, thus saving taxpayers large amounts of money. 

And, presumably not many monkeys would run for office when they return to earth.

Contact Ted Blankenship at tblankenship@cox.net.