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One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps (DVD Review)

12 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem

Prebook 1/13/09; Street 2/10/09
Victory Multimedia
$29.98 DVD
Not rated.

The voyage into space and beyond is one fraught with great courage and sacrifice. But before committing men to the dangers of spaceflight, methods and equipment were tested on animals.

The Russians used dogs, sending one on an ill-fated trip in Sputnik 2. The Americans, of course, preferred to use monkeys and later, famously, chimpanzees.

This probing hour-long documentary traces the history of NASA’s use of monkeys and chimpanzees to conduct space research, injecting a political point of view that may disappoint some space enthusiasts.

Several monkeys were killed in the early days of rocketry when the test vehicles crashed or exploded. Those that survived achieved a level of fame. A pair of monkeys named Able and Baker in 1959 became the first living beings to return safely to Earth after traveling into space (though Able died a few days later due to an infected medical electrode).

After chimpanzees supplanted monkeys in space research, the most famous were Ham, who proceeded Alan Shepherd on a sub-orbital Mercury flight, and Enos, who flew two orbits prior to John Glenn’s first mission. Viewers get to know the stories of Ham and Enos quite well through newsreel footage and an interview with their trainer.

The documentary also includes interviews with animal activists such as Jane Goodall and Carole Noon, who say the creatures weren’t always given the best treatment. They argue that while the close genetic relationship between chimps and humans made them ideal test subjects, scientists ignored the psychological tolls and other harms for the sake of research. The documentary includes a lot of footage of tests gone wrong, and the aftermath.

NASA retired its chimp colony in 1997, finding new homes for its 141 chimps. After some controversy and legal issues, most ended up with Noon’s Save the Chimps Sanctuary.

The program’s slight political tinge is somewhat not surprising considering it was co-directed by David Cassidy, who produced the Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing.

Footage of the plight of the chimps is intercut with John F. Kennedy’s iconic Rice University speech about the lunar program, with segments carefully chosen to create the implication that chimpanzees and other animals were carelessly sacrificed for the sake of the grander human adventure. It is a sentiment with which many others might disagree.

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