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

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2005:

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
“chimponauts,” 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
investigation, 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 suffering was concealed from the
public. Chimpanzees grimacing in agony were
depicted by the Air Force-compliant media as
“smiling with enjoyment.”

The policy of propagandising the space
program, glossing over problems, eventually
contributed 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-vivisection 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 presented to the Aero Med Lab
brass, they were horrified Ć 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
infamous 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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