In Space, No One Can Hear You Lie
By Taylor Marvin
Iran’s claim to have launched a live monkey into space on a suborbital rocket is false, the Times of London reported today — the monkey shown before flight is clearly not the same creature purportedly recovered. It is unclear if Iranian officials are attempting to cover up the death of the test creature in flight, or if the proclaimed launch happened at all.
The lack of international confirmation of the launch suggest that it was not conducted at all. But despite the amateurish qualities of the deception, it is unsurprising that the Iranian government would make false claims about the country’s space program. Iranian officials have a history of heavy-handedly exaggerating their country’s purported technical exploits for propaganda purposes. When the Iranians showcased a captured American RQ-170 drone in late 2011, they insisted that they had taken control of the aircraft in flight by spoofing its GPS systems; an unlikely claim.
The rational for these false claims is clear: it’s politically important that the Iranian government present itself as a technologically capable power unhampered by international isolation and impoverishment.
Iran’s history of exaggerated or false claims about its space program is not unprecedented. National space programs are important propaganda tools unmatched as a demonstration of national pride and technical skill. Given heavy rockets’ inherent dual use nature, they’re also a demonstration of military prowess that can be positively spun to neutral audiences as unobjectionable scientific advancement. Given these high stakes, authoritarian regimes capable of restricting news of space program failures have every reason to do so.
While the USSR could rightly pride its unmatched record of early Space Race achievements, Soviet leaders were highly aware of their space program’s propaganda value. The Soviets maintained for decades that Laika, a dog launched aboard the early satellite Sputnik 2, was painlessly euthanized in orbit; instead, she died in considerable distress from overheating during her first day in space. This falsehood fit into the larger purpose of the entire program. The prestige value of the Soviets’ space program had to be maintained, mandating that failures be concealed and successes trumpeted by the propaganda machine. The zero-sum soft power competition between the US and USSR left little room for transparency — the international prestige granted by space successes, after all, had considerable impact on real world power politics. Accordingly, Soviet achievements were often considerably exaggerated.
As the American space program began to ramp up, the Soviets hurriedly sought additional firsts to follow up their initial record achievements. One notable success was the 1964 Voskhod 1 mission, the first spacecraft to carry three men into orbit. But, as Greg Goebel notes in his comprehensive history of the race to the Moon, the frantic pressures of the space race meant that shortcuts had to be taken — shortcuts that could be obscured by Soviet restrictions on open information. As a larger capsule roomy enough to hold three cosmonauts in spacesuits would take too long to build, the Soviet space leadership elected to delete the spacesuits. Goebel quotes lead Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev’s deputy Vasily Mishin:
“Fitting a crew of three people, and in spacesuits, in the cabin of the Voskhod was impossible. So — down with the spacesuits! And the cosmonauts went up without them. It was also impossible to make three hatches for ejection. So — down with the ejection devices!
Was it risky? Of course it was. It was if there was, sort of, a three-seater craft and, at the same time, there wasn’t. In fact, it was a circus act, for three people couldn’t do any useful work in space. They were cramped just sitting! No to mention that it was dangerous to fly.”
While not a lie, the Soviet celebration of Voskhod 1 was certainly an exaggeration of its actual engineering merit, and evidence of a program that prized propaganda over safety.
While America’s freedom of the press made it impossible to conceal major disasters in the US space program — if the horrific Apollo 1 fire had happened in the USSR, it would not have been public knowledge — NASA officials were similarly aware of the importance of propaganda. Early American astronauts were depicted as flawless demigods in the press, while knowledge of the astronauts personal failings were suppressed. My 1960 copy of Seven into Space, an all-American celebration of the Mercury program, celebrates the astronauts as simultaneously humble and superhuman, all while ignoring both the divisions within the program and coordinated press campaign designed to depict the astronauts, and by extension America, in the most positive light possible.
While this historical press campaign was nowhere near as dishonest as Iran’s fake spacefaring monkey, it was driven by the same reasons. Like its Soviet rival, for all its talk of noble exploration the early American space program was just as motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as national prestige concerns — as the Iranian program is today. In this high stakes game there’s no room for any failure, whether technological or personal. In national space programs what governments admit to is driven less by honesty than what they think they can get away with