Sunday, May 3, 2009

Decades Later, Astronauts Still Trying to Feel Good About Nonhumans Forcibly Strapped into Capsules and Shot into Space

When I transitioned to an abolitionist a couple years ago, my eyes were opened to the speciesism and associated contradictions that I now see at every turn. So when I recently came across the article Astronauts Pay Respects to “Space Chimps” on, I felt compelled to come up with an alternate or translated title that made sense to me.

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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent points. Thank you for writing this!

Joan said...

Are the primates at the sanctuary all sterilized or has it become a breeding facility to provide more animals to research laboratories?

Anonymous said...

That is correct, Joan. The sanctuary is actally a test monkey breeding ground.

evaLAMF said...

Incorrect info to Joan Anonymous. Get your facts straight. Save The Chimps is not, in no way and never was and never will be a breeding facility. Oh and by the way, there are no monkeys at the sanctuary. There are only chimpanzees retired there. Chimps are apes, not monkeys.

For Joan or anyone else that would like more solid information on the sanctuary, please visit their website at savethechimps . org and if possible, please support their incredible compassionate work.
Please remember that most if not all of these chimps were horribly locked up in steel and cement cages for 30 - 40 years with nothing to keep their intelligent and curious minds occupied. and no nesting materials at night. the list goes on, on how horribly they were treated.