NASA Is Furious Over Russian Plan to Send 'Yurya' the Chimpanzee to the I.S.S. in September

UPDATE: April Fools! 

A stunning example of how international cooperation in space can sometimes backfire, the head of Roscosmos has announced that the agency will send a chimpanzee named "Yurya" on board its next Soyuz capsule, slated for launch on September 4, 2016.

Yurya will replace a Russian cosmonaut who had been originally selected to join Expedition 48 to the International Space Station (ISS), and will officially begin Russia's new "Chimponaut" program. This news comes after a recently announced 30% budget cut to Russia's space program in the coming years

This news comes as a shock to all of the international partners who have contributed to the construction and operation of the ISS over the past two decades, none of whom have yet had time to formulate an official response to Russia's plan to have a chimpanzee join the human crew in orbit. 

Not a scene from the next Captain America movie. But it should be.
Image Credit: NASA

A Space Monopoly in Jeopardy

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev revealed some details about the decision, and conceded that "this is a sizable program, but we need such large undertakings even when it is not all easy in the economy." With falling oil prices and continued international sanctions, the future of Russia's economy is overflowing with uncertainty. In such scenarios, government spending on science and technology is often the first casualty. 

With this move to put a chimpanzee on the space station, Russia does appear to be leveraging its current dominance in the spaceflight industry. Since NASA retired its Space Shuttle fleet back in 2011, the Russian-made Soyuz capsule has been the only space vehicle capable of bringing astronauts from the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe up to the big orbital laboratory in the sky. 

If any of these partners were to try and intervene in Roscosmos' Chimponaut program, the agency may decide to cancel its international Soyuz spaceflight agreements, rendering astronauts stranded and unable to get to the ISS (or return, for that matter). 

This space station will soon be home to a chimpanzee. What could go wrong?
Image Credit: NASA

Over the past few years, NASA has been looking to break Russia's monopoly on human spaceflight by contracting both SpaceX and Boeing to bring their own human-rated space capsules to market as early as 2017, but those vehicles are not yet ready. NASA and other partners currently pay Roscosmos an astonishing $70 million dollars per Soyuz seat to bring its astronauts up to the ISS, which sees about 15 new astronauts/cosmonauts arrive and depart each year.

Now, with this most recent budget cut, Roscosmos could run into serious financial trouble if and when SpaceX and Boeing become competitors in the human spaceflight industry. Under such a scenario, Russia's currently flourishing space sector may soon find itself made irrelevant by private companies. 

As of Now, Roscosmos is Looking to the Future

With the launch of Yurya the chimpanzee and the Chimponaut program, Roscosmos is hoping to re-establish itself as a leader and pioneer in the space industry. This announcement comes less than two weeks short of the 55th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space. Hence the name "Yurya" for Russia's first Chimponaut, a tribute to Russia's first legendary cosmonaut. 

It's a hard life being a Chimponaut. Or Cosmochimp. Or Astrochimp.
Image Credit: NASA

In an exclusive interview, one anonymous source within Roscosmos stated: 

"[the] fact of the matter... [is] that the Space Station was built in cooperation with partners from around the world. Now that Russia has been putting in more than its fair share of the work... [NASA] has been getting all of the attention. This chimpanzee [Yurya] will change that."

Roscosmos' leadership is annoyed at the level of press coverage NASA astronaut Scott Kelly received during and after his one-year mission on board the ISS (previously, no astronaut had spent more than 6 consecutive months on board the station). In comparison, Kelly's crewmate for the duration of the one-year mission, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienkoreceived very little attention and was typically only mentioned in the footnotes. 

Now, Russia is looking to take its fair share of the glory on the space frontier. As another anonymous source stated:

"Russia [has been] a pioneer in understanding the physiological effects of spaceflight ever since [the Soviets] put the first-ever space station in orbit (Wikipedia: Salyut 1). People forget [that] cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov still holds the record for longest-duration single spaceflight... [of] 437 consecutive days on board the Mir space station.
The first man in space was Russian... [and] the first woman in space was Russian... [Yurya] represents the next phase in long-duration spaceflight. This one will be remembered."
Scott Kelly poses with Mikhail Kornienko, the "other guy."
Image Credit: NASA

With NASA set to test a new inflatable habitat module on board the station beginning next month, and assuming that it goes well, Roscosmos will look to have Yurya live in inside of the inflatable space module beginning in September. If this plan goes ahead, Yurya will become the first living creature to inhabit an inflatable space habitat—and she could even end up spending 95% of her time locked inside this module, separated from the human crew. 

Yurya's Historic Mission

During the 1960's, NASA used chimpanzees as test-dummies for space vehicles prior to sending the first Americans into space. On January 31, 1961—just 10 weeks before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space—Ham the chimpanzee was launched on one of NASA's Mercury-Redstone rockets, becoming the first hominid (or great ape) to venture into space.

Then, prior to John Glenn becoming the first American to complete an orbit around Earth, Enos the chimpanzee was launched on November 29, 1961—3 months ahead of Glenn—in an identical vehicle, becoming only the third hominid (after Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov) to make it into orbit. 

Left: Ham celebrates making the front page.
Right: Launch of Ham's Mercury-Redstone rocket.

Image Credit: NASA

Since Ham and Enos first flew during the Mercury program, no other chimpanzees have ventured into space. Roscosmos has pointed out that, while the U.S. was conducting spaceflight experiments on chimpanzees during the 1960's, the Soviet program primarily sent dogs, which were followed only shortly thereafter by human cosmonauts. With this new Cosmochimp program, Russia hopes to forge a new frontier using its own chimpanzee test-dummies before endangering the lives of Russian cosmonauts.

"We believe that there's still much to learn about long duration spaceflight and the effects it has on [human physiology]," said one anonymous source. "[Humans] and chimps share 99% of their genes. This is the perfect opportunity to begin studying the effects of very long duration spaceflight—and radiation exposure—on an animal that is so similar to [humans]." 

And what exactly do they mean by very long? For starters, Roscosmos has slated Yurya for a one-year trial period on board the ISS. If things go well, that mission could be extended another year, perhaps even two. Yurya could end up staying in orbit for up to three years in total, at which point the agency would want to return her to Earth in order to study any physiological changes in meticulous detail

Ham is recovered safely after his first spaceflight.
Image Credit: NASA

In addition to studying the ongoing health of Yurya on board the ISS, she'll be given a number of daily tasks. A large portion of her workload will involve a much more elaborate educational outreach program in which Yurya will spend about three hours out of every day (in 20 or 30 minute intervals) performing tricks for Russian students and answering questions using basic sign-language.

But with a vocabulary of only about 200-300 words, Yurya has limited communication abilities and, like other chimpanzees, a tendency to become easily distracted and occasionally even violent. 

To help Yurya cope with her new habitat, Roscosmos is considering upgrading the inflatable module or renovating another lesser-used portion of the station. Some ideas include adding a jungle-themed environment equipped with artificial trees and ropes—although swinging around may prove difficult in zero gravity. A large store of flash-frozen bananas will also be brought up with future resupply missions, and the agency is looking into the possibility of upgrading the station's plant-growing operations to include growing fresh fruit for Yurya. 

Ham happily receives an apple after spaceflight.
Image Credit: NASA

If this sounds a bit ambitious, Roscosmos has also mentioned the possibility of training Yurya to perform EVA's (spacewalks) alongside the human crew. One suggestion is that certain high-risk EVA missions, such as scrambling along the ISS' solar panel arrays while un-tethered, may be better suited to a chimpanzee than a human astronaut. Many of these panels have been damaged by micrometeorites and other debris in the 15 years that the ISS has been in orbit, so having Yurya on board may present the perfect opportunity to carry out some much needed repairs.

Roscosmos is also betting that having a Chimponaut on board the ISS will make children more interested in science and technology. Perhaps Yurya's presence will win the hearts and minds of Russian students, thereby increasing their interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. A side benefit of this is that a renewed interest in STEM may also lead to Roscosmos' receiving an increased operating budget at some point in the future.

A Fresh Perspective

While some have been quick to criticize Roscosmos' controversial decision to bring a large animal into space, others have been more positive about the news. In a recent interview, one-year crew veteran Scott Kelly had this to say:

"I spent a lot of time in that very small space. If you can consider the fact that, you know, you sleep in there. I'm just saying we should make it better—as best as we possibly can... you know because it does involve animals, it's got to be done a certain way, and a very humane way."

This 'humane way' includes the need to accommodate Yurya as best as possible, in order to make her stay on board the ISS as pleasant as possible. And Kelly knows a thing or two about being an ape on board the ISS, as can be seen in this video of him dressed up as a gorilla:

Perhaps Yurya will prove the perfect fit for the ISS crew after all. As Scott Kelly noted in closing, "We're the same height by the way." Yurya's mission to the ISS may even provide Roscosmos with the momentum it needs to launch a manned (and perhaps with a Cosmochimp in tow) mission to the Moon in the not-so-distant future. 

And with that, let us all bid Yurya a safe and enjoyable flight. Oh, and obviously, APRIL FOOLS!

A smile is worth a million words.
Image Credit: NASA

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