Space Odyssey or space race, who to define it?

Space Odyssey or space race, who to define it?

By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English

The news came on Jan. 28 like a bolt from the blue to the Western governments when Iran suddenly announced that it had successfully sent a monkey to space and back in a suborbital capsule which climbed to 120 kilometers.

The video clip showed a gray-tufted monkey strapped in a pod resembling an infant’s car seat riding an Iranian rocket into space and returned safely, which Iranian officials described as a step toward Tehran’s goal of a manned space flight.

However, Tehran’s foes would see it the other way. The mission also touched on concerns that advances in Iran’s rocket expertise could be channeled into military use for long-range weapons that might one day carry nuclear warheads, despite that Iran insists it does not seek atomic weapons.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland remarked that the U.S. had no way to confirm the monkey’s voyage, but that it was concerned by the reports because “any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”

More worrisome might be the assumed correlation between Iran’s main booster rocket and he Unha-3 booster developed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), whose rocket launch failed in December and incurred upon it international sanctions.

Both taken as eyesore by the West powers, and both facing the international sanctions, the two countries still venture out to seek hallmarks of their scientific prowess and national pride.

"Iran’s main booster rocket is Safir-2. It is relatively light, and all three Iranian satellites launched by it weighed less than 50 kilos. All other missions boosted by this rocket were suborbital. Another Iranian booster rocket, codenamed Simurgh, is much more powerful. Its first successful launch, however, is some way off. Interestingly, this rocket is very similar to the Unha-3 booster developed by North Korea (i.e. DPRK)," commented Dr Vladimir Yevseyev, Director of the Moscow-based Social and Political Research Center .

"Last September, Iran and North Korea (i.e.DPRK) signed an agreement to cooperate in developing space and missile technologies. Many believe Iranian engineers watched the first launch of the Unha-3 in December. This means the first launch of the Simurgh rocket is not that far away," he added.

Also, what vexes the West is if the Simurgh booster is in service, Iran will be capable of launching satellites weighing up to 2 tons. It will also acquire ballistic missiles capable of carrying warheads to distances of several thousand kilometers.

Launching a live animal into space, as the pioneering space powers U.S. and the Soviet Union did more than a half-century ago in the infancy of their programs, may boost a country’s stature. But John Logsden, a space policy professor emeritus at George Washington University, said Iran’s achievement should draw no concern.

“A slight monkey on a suborbital flight is nothing to get too excited about,” he said. “They already had the capability to launch warheads in their region.”

Coincidentally, a new flurry of space endeavors saw a new comer on Wednesday, when South Korea, following a culmination of years of efforts, successfully launched a satellite into space from its own soil for the first time. Pyongyang immediately afterwards accused its rivals of applying double standards toward the two Koreas' space programs, as it deemed the new international sanctions over its Dec. 12 rocket launch unfair.

As expected, Iran’s retracing the U.S. and the Soviet Union’s path to space stirred outcry in the West world, as Tehran’s space mission is accused of repeating the darkest days of space race.

Perhaps, the crux is not in the space mission itself, but who is on the way to space.