June 15th, 2010

Theme Building

Documentary Film Review: Chimps in Space

The entire title is actually "One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps".

I really enjoyed it, but I had mixed feelings as I watched it.

Do I recommend it? Depends. Definitely no blanket recommendation.

Certainly I would not recommend that Wendy watch this. As she may have already told you in person, she bawled throughout the fictional film Two Brothers because of the depiction of cruelty toward those two tigers.

So, as you might imagine, the story of chimpanzees, monkeys, and other living creatures in man's "race to space" is not necessarily a pretty one. For instance, what young man ever dreamed of growing up and becoming an astronaut? Plenty! What young monkey ever wanted to be strapped into a tiny space capsule and rocketed into space? None!

Although there was what most would perceive as "necessary cruelty" in the space program as far as experiments go, it's dealt with lightly and tastefully in this documentary.

One example is how the voiceover became silent as they showed old footage of examining a large chimpanzee after he'd been used to test a liquid-filled capsule that was rocketed down a track at 300 mph and then suddenly stopped. (The idea was to see if liquid-filled capsules would cut down on chimp fatalities in this situation). The footage went on for long seconds as they examined him. That chimp was not moving. Sad.

The two most famous "space chimps" were Ham and Enos.

Ham was a very loving, hugging, smiling 37-pound boy. Enos was quite intelligent, but more of a loner.

Both were sent up into space (either orbital or sub-orbital, I can't recall. I think Ham was sub-orbital, and he would have gone on the next mission which was orbital, but he'd gotten into some snacks behind his handler's back and put himself overweight) on famous launches.

Commenting on a newspaper photograph of Ham with a huge, huge grin after his return to earth, chimp expert Jane Goodall recalls that when she saw the picture she had "never seen such fear in a chimp's face before". In other words, he wasn't really smiling.

After the launch, in an effort to show the public that he didn't mind being in that capsule that he'd been sent up into space with, they organized a press conference where Ham was to go sit in it again. Four men could not get him into that seat.

Enos experienced an unfortunate equipment malfunction. Part of the set-up for the mission was to strap electric pads to the chimps feet (which they were used to in training) which would shock them if they hit the wrong levers. Of course they quickly learned to hit only the right levers. Sadly, though, during his flight, Enos got a shock no matter what lever he hit. An interviewee voiced over the pictures of Enos on his return, "that was one PO'd chimpanzee".

One thing that I didn't realize is that there were hundreds of chimps in the space program, used for both ground-based experiments (G-force, sudden stops, etc) as well as flight tests. If you were a young chimp in the space program, given the natural life span of a chimp, you'd be alive today.

So where are all the space chimps today?

The documentary explains the answer. Sadly, the Air Force basically dumped them after a few years, selling most to a laboratory, Coulson, I believe it was called. Chimp activists fought to have them released, and finally reached a small settlement where they obtained only 21 of them.

Seeing those grey-bearded old "men" in their beautiful new outdoor habitat was a joy.

So, the documentary was bittersweet. I'm glad I viewed it, and glad I know the truth about the space chimps.

Emotional? Well, I was on the verge of tears a few times, but none came. None, that is, until the very last scene, which was a slide of text displayed.

Ironically, the text had good news about the chimps, but it did make my eyes water.

A very well-made documentary.

Widely available in the San Diego County Libary system.

For more information and a synopsis of the story of the space chimps: