BOOKS: One Small Step: America’s First Primates in Space

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1995:

One Small Step:
America’s First
Primates in Space
by David Cassidy
& Patrick Hughes
Penguin Group (375 Hudson Street,
New York, NY 10014), 2005.
135 pages, paperback
plus DVD documentary. $19.95.
One Small Step presents the history of the
early U.S. space program, focusing on the “chimpo-
nauts,” who preceded humans into orbit.
Then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower
had one question, according to David Cassidy and
Patrick Hughes: “If I put humans in space, are they
going to die? Will their hearts stop beating? Will
their blood stop flowing? Or will they be so sick that
they just can’t do anything?”
Video documentarian Cassidy’s investiga-
tion, turned into a book by Hughes, reveals not only
how many animals were sacrificed in the cause of
space exploration, but also how carefully their suffer-
ing was concealed from the public. Chimpanzees gri-
macing in agony were depicted by the Air Force-com-
pliant media as “smiling with enjoyment.”

The policy of propagandising the space pro-
gram, glossing over problems, eventually con-
tributed to the explosions of the space shuttles
Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, of which
California physicist Richard Feynman wrote: “Truth
should never be subordinated to public relations
because although you can fool the people, you can’t
fool Nature.”
Rhesus macaques were shot into space to
die, killed on impact if the rocket returned to earth or
drowned in the sea if it sank. Others were incinerated
on re-entry or atomised when the rockets exploded.
Wild chimpanzees were “procured” from
Africa to better simulate human astronauts. In 1961
only a handful of then-small and obscure anti-vivisec-
tion societies protested against their capture and use.
Chimps were strapped into metal chairs and trained to
spend all day in one position. They were strapped
into centrifuges and other devices to test the effects of
rapid acceleration, deceleration, and decompression.
(John Paul Stapp, the first U.S. space
research supervisor, had ethical qualms about the
work, and in 1946-1947 used himself as the subject
of the first such experiments. Recalls the web site
<>, “When after
many months the results of all Stapp’s work was pre-
sented to the Aero Med Lab brass, they were horri-
fied…Stapp was told in no uncertain terms that
human tests had to end. Chimpanzees, his superiors
advised, would be acceptable substitutes.”)
During actual space flight the chimponaut
received shocks if they pulled the wrong levers.
Those who survived the harsh treatment of
the space program were consigned in 1963 to the infa-
mous Coulston Foundation laboratories for use in
other types of biomedical research.
Primarily Primates at last won the release of
31 former NASA chimps from the Air Force in 1997,
and Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care founder
Carole Noon in late 2002 bought the Coulston
Foundation buildings, equipment, 266 chimpanzees,
and 61 monkeys for $3.7 million. Some of the
chimps had by then endured solitary confinement in
concrete cells for 40 years.
––Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan
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