A conscripted astronaut, launched into space as part of a study on weightlessness, breaks free from his restraints and attempts to work the control panel of his spacecraft. Meanwhile, back at the launch site, alarmed researchers and technicians monitor his activities on ground-controlled TV cameras and wonder if the space rebel will wreck the experiment and force them to cut short the flight.
It was not a movie melodrama. Those real-life scenes last week focused worldwide attention on a cosmonaut with a mission of his own: monkey business in a Soviet spaceship. The protagonist in the drama was Yerosha—a Rhesus monkey who managed to slip his left arm free of a restraint in an orbiting space capsule that was sent aloft to test the effects of weightlessness. Yerosha, a name that means “troublemaker” in Russian, clearly was buoyed by his assignment. Ripping out electrodes and pushing buttons and switches, Yerosha threatened to force an end to the planned 12-day
mission. Finally, controllers realized that Yerosha was isolated in a secure chamber and decided to carry on as planned.
In the new era of glasnost, or openness, the Soviets bared all about the extraterrestrial tale. According to initial Soviet press reports, Yerosha freed
his arm on Oct. 4—five days after the launch of the capsule carrying him and a second less-active monkey, as well as 10 white rats, fish and other test subjects. At week’s end, a spokesman for Soviet researchers said that while Yerosha “was investigating whatever he could reach with great curiosity,” he appeared to be doing no harm. As a result, declared Rostislav Ruzin, there was no need to cut short the experiment.
At the same time, the incident has provoked mirth among Muscovites —triggered partly by reports from TASS that space authorities on the ground were trying to anticipate Yerosha’s actions by placing another monkey at the instrument panel of a simulated space craft. They did so, according to the Soviet news agency, after television pictures relayed from the spacecraft showed that Yerosha had ripped a metal label from a cap affixed to his head. That cap contained 15 sensors to detect changes in electrical impulses as the monkey adjusted to weightlessness.
The flight was the eighth test in a series of experiments paving the way for future manned voyages to the planets. That objective—and the monkey’s widely reported antics—underscored the fact that the Soviet space program continues to thrive 30 years after the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, called Sputnik 1. Other recent accomplishments strengthen the Soviet claim to a widening lead over the United States in the space race. They include the launch of the space station Mir (peace) in February, 1986. Then, one month later, a Soviet satellite transmitted valuable data about Halley’s comet as the craft flew within 5,500 miles of the comet’s heart. And last May the U.S.S.R. successfully tested a 220-foot-long rocket known as the Energia or SL17, which can lift payloads of more than 100 tons into orbit.
But last week the world’s attention was focused less on space exploration than on the plight of a furry cosmonaut as Soviet scientists reported that Yerosha was probably not getting enough to eat because of a blockage in a food tube. As a result, they increased the flow of fruit juice in the hope, they said, that the liquid diet would enable the space voyageur to survive the weekend—and the stresses of reentry on a scheduled landing Oct. 12 in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan.
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