The news story is about two retired American astronauts—Scott Carpenter who orbited the Earth in 1962 as a member of NASA’s original Mercury Seven, and Bob Crippen who piloted the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981—who last week visited a nonprofit sanctuary in Florida that serves as the permanent home for rescued chimpanzees, including many who once served as research and test subjects for the space agency and the US Air Force.
In the early days of the space programs, nonhuman animals were used in projects to assess the impact of space flight on living bodies. Ground-based experiments eventually culminated in actual test flights into space. In 1957 a dog named Laika became the first animal to venture into outer space when the Soviet Union launched her as the sole occupant of Sputnik 2. Tragically she was also the first person to die in space. A malfunction in the spacecraft’s thermal control system is believed to have been the cause of her death from overheating a few hours into the flight.
It was only after a chimpanzee named Ham—one of several known as “space chimps”—returned successfully to Earth after a suborbital flight in a NASA Mercury capsule, that Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American human to venture into space in 1961, also in a Mercury capsule.
“We’re paying them back for their service.” Carpenter said as they utilized golf carts to tour—with reporters and camera crews—the sprawling 200-acre grounds where 150 chimpanzees reside on a series of islands.
"There were a lot of unknowns back in the '50s about how the human body would react to space and some real bad concerns that you might die," Crippen added. "And these guys opened that up to at least give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time."
There are two problems with these remarks. First, while it’s very fortunate that this sanctuary is available for these previously caged chimpanzees that cannot survive in the wild, to live out the rest their lives, I would not characterize the situation as “paying them back for their service.” I think of service as something that is voluntary and meaningful on the part of the individuals involved. The space flight experiences of Ham and Carpenter could not be more different. Carpenter, Crippen, Shepard, and all other human astronauts and cosmonauts choose their destiny; while Ham, Laika, and the other nonhuman research and test subjects did not. I would instead describe the situation as paying restitution to individuals who had been wrongfully imprisoned and unjustly experimented upon over several decades.
Secondly, while acknowledging that nonhumans exhibit sufficient physical commonality with humans to “… give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time," Crippen conveniently overlooks their cognitive commonality in order to morally justify launching them into space ahead of the willing astronauts, to investigate those “… real bad concerns that you might die.”
This is just one of innumerable examples of people rationalizing the exploitation, oppression, and devaluing of others based on some irrelevant characteristic. In the case of the “space chimps” half-a-century ago, that characteristic happened to be species. But essentially the same thing is occurring when we base our discrimination on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any number of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with self-awareness and the desire to avoid suffering and death.