In this undated image taken from AP Television, scientists in Iran surround a monkey ahead of a space launch. Iran said it had successfully sent the monkey into space on Jan. 28, describing the launch as another step toward Tehran's goal of a manned space flight. (AP)
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TEHRAN, Iran — A gray-tufted monkey strapped in a pod resembling an infant's car seat rode an Iranian rocket into space and returned safely, officials said Monday in what was described as a step toward Tehran's goal of a manned space flight.
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. Iran says it does not seek atomic weapons.
Launching a live animal into space — as the 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."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said 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."
The U.N. Security Council has expressly forbidden Iran from such ballistic missile activity, Nuland added.
In June 2010, the Security Council banned Iran from pursuing "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
With its ambitious aerospace program, Iran has said it wants to become a technological leader for the Islamic world.
It's not the first time Iran has announced it had rocketed a live creature out of the Earth's atmosphere. The country sent a mouse, a turtle and some worms into space in 2010, officials said.
But the purported successful voyage of the small monkey, shown wearing a protective vest, put Iran among just a handful of nations that have sent a primate into space in a mission seen as a precursor of human spaceflight. No name was given for the monkey.
Earlier this month, the director of Iran's space agency, Hamid Fazeli, said Iran wanted to launch its first manned space mission in as soon as five years — a goal that stretches back to the shah's fascination with NASA years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Iran is on its way to send a man into space," said Iran's Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi in comments posted on the ministry's website.
He added that the capsule "returned to Earth safely at the expected speed, together with the monkey inside," without giving further details.
According to state TV, the rocket dubbed "Pishgam," or "Pioneer" in Farsi, reached a height of 120 kilometers (72 miles), pushing into the threshold of space.
Iran's state TV broadcast its first video pictures showing Iranian scientists fixing the seated monkey into the rocket before the launch. It did not give any details on the timing or location of the launch.
Still images also showed the monkey wearing a type of molded body protection and being strapped tightly into a red plastic seat. The monkey was shown immobilized with straps and his face poked through a purple shield that covered his head and upper body.
Fazel said the monkey parachuted safely with the remaining last stage of the rocket. The TV also showed experts walking to the site in the middle of a desert where the monkey landed.
Fazel told the state TV that Iran will launch a bigger rocket together with a larger animal to obtain greater safety assurances before sending a man into space.
For Iran, its aerospace program is a source of national pride at a time of slumping economic fortunes from Western sanctions. It's also one of the pillars of Iran's aspirations to be seen as the technological hub for Islamic and developing countries.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and others repeatedly describe scientific progress — including Iran's uranium enrichment labs — as a patriotic duty in response to Western economic and diplomatic pressures.
Iran's rocket technology alarms the West as giving it intercontinental reach for a possible arsenal. Already, conventional Iranian missiles are capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.
Iran insists it only seeks nuclear reactors for energy and medical applications. But authorities also say there can be no retreat from homegrown technological development in all fields — from peaceful nuclear research to military surveillance drones.
Tehran has announced several successful launches of satellites, dating back to 2005 in a joint project with Russia.
In November, the head of Iran's powerful parliamentary committee on security and foreign policy, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, warned that "no power can prevent Iran's progress in scientific and nuclear science fields."
Similar statements were made last year when Iran announced plans for a new space center.
Few details have emerged on the new facility, but Iran already has a major satellite launch complex near Semnan, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Tehran. A satellite monitoring facility is located outside Mahdasht, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Iranian capital.
Iran says it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation, improve telecommunications and expand military surveillance in the region.
The mission involving the monkey drew historical links to the earliest years of the space race in the 1950s when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested rockets with animals on board, including American capsules carrying monkeys and Moscow's holding dogs. Many of the animals on the early flights perished because of equipment failure or technology unable to cope with re-entry from sub-orbit.
Later in the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviets sent animals into orbit for further biological tests on space flight and other nations, including France and China, sent animals on rocket flights.
"They're following the path that we followed more than half a century ago," Logsdon said, adding that Iran is probably ahead of India in terms of space ability, but behind its arch foe Israel.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said it was "appalled" by photos of what it described as a "visibly terrified monkey crudely strapped into a restraint device."
It said it had urged Iran in 2011 not to send a primate into space.
"Iran is repeating the wasteful and cruel mistakes that marked the darkest days of the space race," PETA said in a statement.
Science Writer Seth Borenstein and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.