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Reports: Monkey soars from Iran into space -- and back

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 12:17 PM EST, Tue January 29, 2013
  • Iranian state news reports a monkey strapped inside a capsule launches into space
  • An Iranian minister calls the monkey's trip "the first step for sending humans into space"
  • A U.S. official says such a launch, if confirmed, violates a U.N. Security Council resolution
  • Animals have been used for space launches before, to prepare for human flights

(CNN) -- Monkeys in space.

No, it's not the title of a wacky B movie, featuring primates amongst the stars in a bid for intergalactic dominance. Rather, Iran says this plot represents its latest bid to join the space race, though Iran's foes fear the real aim may be to test missile launching capabilities for less peaceful purposes.

According to official Iranian news reports, the primate was strapped snugly into a Pishgam (or Pioneer) rocket and launched 120 kilometers (75 miles) into the sky on Monday.

He returned back to Earth sometime later, looking shell-shocked but alive as a crowd of men along the desert ground rejoiced, video from state-run Press TV showed.

"Sending (the monkey into space) and retrieving it was the first step for sending humans into space," Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

Meet the animals that have visited space

But while it was celebrated in Tehran, the monkey business -- if it actually happened -- didn't play well in Washington.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday that while she saw pictures of "the poor little monkey," the United States doesn't "have any way to confirm this (happened), one way or another."

"But our concerns with Iran's development of space launch vehicle technologies are obviously well-known: Any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles," she told reporters.

Nuland said that, if confirmed, Iran's launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution that forbids "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

But the tone was far different in Iran, where officials characterized the monkey's reportedly successful trip high into the sky and back as a major step forward in its space program.

One of the 24 founding members of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959, Iran sent its first satellite into space in 2009. Other launches have followed, including of an orbiter capable of transmitting images of, and to, Earth.

Monday's reported launch of the monkey -- who was kept in a "completely sealed" capsule that produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide, with his vital signs recorded throughout the flight -- is part of a larger effort to someday send humans into space, said Iranian Space Agency Director Hamid Fazeli.

It's not the first time animals have reached the skies ahead of humans. The U.S. space program launched a rhesus monkey into space from New Mexico in 1948. Other primates and mice followed, and the Soviet Union a few years later joining the animal space race when nine dogs went skyward aboard rockets.

Many more creatures soared into space in the years to come, until Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in April 1961. American astronaut Alan Shepard made a suborbital flight later that year, and John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.

Read more space and science news on CNN's Light Years blog

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