Monkeys Going to Mars

Monkeys from the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology in Russia are being prepared to boldly go where no one has gone before — Mars.

Why monkeys? Humans and monkeys have approximately the same sensitivity to radiation. The macaques from the Sochi Institute will give a more accurate picture of how humans will react to the conditions on a flight to Mars.

The Sochi Institute will spend the next few years performing experiments in order to select forty monkeys with the right stuff for space flight. Those forty monkeys will graduate to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. At the Institute of Biomedical Problems, scientists study aerospace biomedicine. The scientists are planning the Mars-500 project, where volunteers will spend seventeen months in a spaceship simulator, experiencing the conditions of interplanetary flight.

The Institute of Biomedical Problems will look at how monkeys react to things like isolation, special diets, and prolonged weightlessness. Seventeen months allows time for travel to and from Mars, plus a month or so of exploration time on the planet itself.

So how soon will we see a manned — or monkeyed — expedition to Mars? Probably not for another decade. Maybe longer.

The Sochi Institute has a long history of breeding macaques for the space program. Their most famous graduate is old man Krosh — around sixteen years old in human time, which is approximately sixty years old on a monkey scale. Caretakers at the Sochi Institute say Krosh is active and amorous. Better yet, Krosh fathered a family after returning from space. This, scientists say, helps prove that spaceflight left no lasting mark on the monkey’s health.

Twelve macaques from the Sochi Institute have flown in Russian (or Soviet, in the days of the Soviet Union) space shuttles since 1983. Most of them have returned home to be rehabilitated and rejoin the pack. At least one has been presented as a gift to an international leader.