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Iran launches monkey into space

Iran is one step closer to its goal of manned space flight.

Iran’s government-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency on Monday reportedly announced that the Iranian space program has successfully launched a monkey into space.

According to a report on state TV, the rocket, called Pishgam (or Pioneer in Farsi), ascended 72 miles high. The report made no mention of the time or location of the launch, but did state that the monkey safely returned to Earth after its brief stint in space.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has sent a monkey into space aboard an indigenous bio-capsule as a prelude to sending humans into space,” IRNA posted on its website.

In 2010, Iran stated an Explorer rocket carried a mouse, turtle and worms into space. With the launch of a monkey, Tehran has stated that this brings Iran a bit closer to attaining the goal of sending an astronaut into space. It’s a goal among others in an ambitious aerospace program: as of last year, the plans also include a new space center. In 2011, the nation announced plans to send a monkey to space but apparently was unsuccessful.

State TV displayed a photo of the monkey preparing for flight. The gray tufted creature was shown strapped into a pod, wearing a protective suit. This photo recalls the historical photos of the beginning of the Soviet Union and the United States’s space race in the 1950s, where images of animals readying for orbit expressed national ambitions for space travel. Many of these early Earth space travelers, dogs from the Soviet Union and monkeys from the U.S., perished upon re-entry from orbit because of failed equipment.

The photos making the rounds online seemed to usher memories of the early U.S. and Soviet space programs. In 1949, U.S. sent a rhesus monkey into space only to see it die when its parachute malfunctioned. In 1983, the Soviet Union sent two monkeys, along with 10 pregnant rats, into space, according to NASA. Since then, many of the animals sent to space have revolved around small creatures, such as worms and spiders.

The U.S. and its allies have expressed concerned that Iranian advances in space technology may also be used to develop long-range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads. Iran denied that it seeks nuclear-powered weapons and claims to pursue nuclear power only for medical and energy-producing applications. Using satellites, Iran states it wants to improve telecommunications and expand military surveillance. In an area of the world prone to earthquakes, Iran also says it wants to use satellites to collect climate-related data to help responses to natural disasters.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. had no way to confirm the monkey’s voyage, but that it was  concerned by the reports because any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles. The U.N. Security Council has expressly forbidden Iran from such ballistic missile activity. In June 2010, the Security Council banned Iran from pursuing “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

The launch comes as a number of nations around the world have expressed plans for furthering their space programs. China, India, and Europe have all announced plans that will take them beyond low-Earth orbit and beyond. China has announced plans to send a manned mission to the moon, while India recently announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars. Meanwhile, private companies in the U.S. have put forth business plans revolving around increasing tourism in low-Earth orbit, which could leave Earth’s last frontier a little more crowded.