Monkeys in Space

Prologue

     The Five-Year Plan freed Doctor Pyotr Zinchenko to spend both day and night dreaming about putting a man in space. Many considered him to be the first space-hygienist, developing a wide-range of waste receptacles—studying bacteria and viruses in gravity-free environments and being the first person to consider the implications of living in a radiation-rich environment. Many of his theoretical texts addressed important questions: What hazards existed in the thermosphere? How does a gravity-free environment influence fluid distribution in mammals? And what is needed to maintain homeostasis for long-term space missions?

While most of the money Khrushchev put towards the space program went towards the R-7 ICBM, there was plenty left over for Dr. Zinchenko’s work with dogs and rhesus monkeys. All the dogs were female, preferred because the waste removal units were gender specific; on the other hand all the monkeys were male because they enjoyed working with tools, were unafraid of the D^3 jobs (dismal, difficult, dirty), and were naturally drawn to computers.

None represented these qualities more than Bion and Yerosha, the two monkeys who stood out as the pick of the litter. They excelled at examinations, both written and oral, and were physically fit (including astonishing endurance on the Vomit Comet).

Dr. Zinchenko had worked with the two since they were adopted as infants, teaching them all the major subjects: calculus, advanced physics, microbiology, radio-repair, and first-aid. Not only that but the doctor took them home during holiday where they were welcomed like sons. (Both monkeys were unaware that Zinchenko and his wife lost both their boys at Bryansk in ’43).

Back at the academy, many of the other cadets saw the treatment as unequal, which was viewed as pejoratively Western. Many cadets wrote strongly worded letters to Khrushchev. To their shock and dismay, Moscow never responded.

Despite envy and animosity, all of the cadet rhesus monkeys woke at the crack of dawn to take the bus to the site, wanting to see the launch firsthand.

When the support tower fell away from the boosters, all of the rhesus monkeys held hands and tails as the de-pressurized liquid oxygen breathed life into rockets. The change in pressure meant a change in temperature. The moisture in the air froze to the tanks before sublimating back into the atmosphere, looking like a puff of white smoke.

The rocket jumped into the air, quickly shrinking into an ever more stout looking version of itself as it reached the mesosphere, bending away from the onlookers.  The first stage completed, and the boosters fell away in almost perfect symmetry. At first the five engines created a squared cross, but its own heat waves rubbed out those boundaries, creating a sphere of orange that seemed to mimic the sun. Second stage complete, another set of boosters broke free and fell back to earth.

With distance the world became quiet once more. All watching exhaled, a few let out cheers. The ever-shrinking sun shrank to nothing before hitting a certain point in its trajectory where it looked like a comet.

A hundred and fifty seconds. That’s how long it took to put Bion and Yerosha out of the reach of man.

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Mission: Biocosmos V

Transmission time: 14.35-14.51

Topics: Space fever, sleep problems

BION__ Do you want a muffin? They’re banana.

YEROSHA__ Bion, you nincompoop, they’re always banana-flavored. That’s all we’ve been eating for the past seven months. If I have to eat one more of those things I’m going to be sick. [Groans] And would you take that thing off. You look like an idiot.

BION__ I like wearing it when I’m cooking. It reminds me of home.

YEROSHA__ We’re not home and you’re not cooking. You’re warming in the micro-oven. We’re orbiting the earth at 700 kilometers an hour and you’re a cosmonaut, a space monkey for Marx’s sake. We have a mission!

BION__ I know that. Who said we can’t enjoy ourselves while we work.

YEROSHA__ But an apron? [Pause] It’s just that, just that I still don’t feel well.

BION__ You’re still sick? I’m going to take care of you.

YEROSHA__ Please, don’t touch me. Look, we’re getting a transmission from Ground Control.

GROUND CONTROL__ Salutations, Sergeant Bion and Yerosha VII. We’d like to congratulate you on being the first living being to orbit the planet Earth two times. If you are not too busy, we’d like a mission update.

BION and YEROSHA__ Yes, sir.

YEROSHA__ The space capsule—

Ground Control__ Space module, Yerosha. You’re in a module, not a capsule.

YEROSHA__ The module [with emphasis] has been using a bit more energy than expected. Our average is 758 UP per hour, but that should be well within our means.

BION__ We had to turn the heat up because Yerosha is ill.

GROUND CONTROL__ Space Fever!

YEROSHA__ Are you excited, excited about me being sick?

GROUND CONTROL__ Bion, you look very cute in your apron. Did you make that yourself? [Laughter in background of GC] Yerosha, can you please tell me about your space fever. What are your symptoms?

YEROSHA__ It started in the back of my throat and then spread to the rest of my mouth, my gums in particular.

GROUND CONTROL__ Can you open your mouth into the camera so we can get a good look? Wider, a little closer to the camera. Back up just a hair. Perfect. Can you see the white puss coating the uvula? What’s the temperature in the module right now?

BION__ The cabin is seventeen degrees. Put it under your tongue and keep it there. [Pause] He’s a little under thirty-nine degrees.

GROUND CONTROL__ [Indistinguishable speech] Sergeant Yerosha you need to take two pills a day from capsule F10 in the medicine cabinet. Do you hear that, Yerosha? The pills are in the capsule, the monkeys are in the module. [Laughter] And stay on a liquid diet until you return to Moscow. Bion, please take blood samples every four hours.

YEROSHA__ I’d like to inform you that I’ve been struggling to sleep. I don’t find sleeping upright natural, even in a gravity-free environment, and the other night I woke up to find Sergeant Bion snuggling me, which I found bothersome.

BION__ You promised you wouldn’t say anything! I was asleep and couldn’t control myself.

YEROSHA__ The only reason I’m mentioning it is because I think it is affecting my sleep which probably has led to me getting sick. I’m not comfortable falling asleep…that’s worth mentioning…for future missions.

GROUND CONTROL__ Sergeant Bion, are you reading the book we gave you? The one about your tendencies?

BION__ Yes, Ground Control.

GROUND CONTROL__ Well let’s have your reports. Biofeedback first.

YEROSHA__ The mice aren’t doing so well, in general. We’ve lost three, seven, and eleven. Five might be sleeping—it’s hard to tell with them floating and all.

monkey-space

Mission: Biocosmos V

Interview with Yerosha, post-mission

Interview track and time: 3, 00:15-03:02

Topics: Sputnik sighting,

Miss Baker, Space Expo, Cupcake Calendar

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: What were you doing before you saw Sputnik?

“I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be alone. Bion could be too much sometimes. So I tied down and tried to sleep for a couple hours. I had a dream about Miss Baker, again. She was in a cupcake calendar—Miss Baker grocery shopping, Miss Baker riding a horse in the American West, Miss Baker setting a dinner table, Miss Baker in a polka dot swimsuit. She’s so much prettier than any of the female cosmonauts I trained with. I can clearly remember crossing paths with her. Did I ever tell you that we made eye contact? It was the ‘56 Paris Space Expo, and she was surrounded by body guards. When she passed the Soviet booth, she blew me a kiss, and I was so close to her that I could smell her vanilla perfume, which I’ll never forget. She wore a cute red, white, and blue scarf tied around her neck and had goggles on her head, like Amelia Earhart.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Did you fantasize about females often in space?

“No, I can’t say that I did, but there’s something about space that makes sleeping damn near impossible. It’s like napping on a Sunday, comfortable but not rejuvenating. As if gravity was needed to pin my eyelids closed and to put me into a deep sleep. I had a number of space-related dreams. Mice floating in their cage, Bion freely spinning in his apron, and those banana muffins crashing into the control panel.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Tell me more about Bion wearing an apron?

“He has this thing, when he was taking care of me and was pretending to be some stereotypical Mother Hero. He kept trying to feed me and get me back to health.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Did you find it bizarre that he was wearing an apron?

“Yes. He’s a cosmonaut in the best space exploratory program in the world, and he’s acting like a woman. That made no sense to me. I don’t even know where he got that thing. He must have packed it on with his personal belongings, but why that? Why bring an apron?”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Do you find it weird that you had dreams of Miss Baker after Bion wore an apron and was acting like Mother Hero?

“What are you insinuating? I don’t see the connection?”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: I think you do. You saw Bion dressed up like stereotypical Mother Hero which reminded you of the cupcake calendar.

“What are you writing down?  Show me that.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: No. This is my notebook. I’ve told you many times that you can bring your journal to these sessions if you want, but my notes and the record of this conversation is property of the state and is classified. So Bion was mothering you, you had enough of him and went to take a nap, you dreamt of Miss Baker, and then what?

“When I opened my eye, I looked out window L3 and saw a flickering of light orbiting the earth, looking like a Kopek spinning on a table. It reminded me of one of the security guards who would sit and spin a fifty Kopek piece to pass the time. The way that thing shines. I didn’t know what it was. Why didn’t you tell me that we had satellites? I don’t know why things were being kept a secret.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: I assure you that we were not trying to offend you. Think about it from our perspective. If we are going to truly explore space, we are going to come across unidentified flying objects of one kind or another. What are the psychological ramifications of being in extended isolation and coming across something that you were completely unprepared for? Not only were you and Bion the first two mammals to orbit the earth five times, but you passed a number of extremely difficult psychological tests. You were sick in space and kept your head straight. We needed to know how our training prepares our cosmonauts and how they react—physically, mentally, and emotionally. That’s why you were injected with influenza.

You also experienced an unknown object and your training prepared you to handle the situation extremely well. On one hand you could be mad at us, but in my opinion you should be proud for supporting our claims and proving that our program is creating the world’s best cosmonauts. I want to play you some tape and listen to what you and Bion said.

[Tape begins with the sound of monkeys screaming: “They’re coming for us!!!  Aliens!!!” Yerosha said.  “The Americans!  They are going to shoot us with their lasers,” Bion said. (Continued shouting, squealing, and hysteria.)]

“After what you just said, why would you play that? What’s the point of playing that? Are you trying to embarrass me? Is this some joke? You come in here and sit down with your white coat, and I know that behind that mirror are a couple of your doctor friends, and that this is all a nice opportunity to laugh at the monkey.  After everything we’ve been through. You know what? You think you know what it’s like. You can sit there and imagine solitary confinement and liftoff, but you can’t begin to understand the fear about truly doing something. You didn’t feel it. I don’t doubt your intelligence, but I know something that you will never, ever know. You poisoned me, you locked me up in your test facility for four months, and then you sent me into outer space. I knew what I was looking at. It was an artificial satellite of some sort, and I assumed that it wasn’t one of ours. Why? Because you would’ve told us. As a team member, you would’ve told me that we already had satellites orbiting the planet. But no. Because I am a monkey. You’re a big, smart human. And I’m only a monkey.”

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Mission: Biocosmos V

Interview with Bion, post-mission

Interview track and time: 6, 00:00-02:45

Topics: Re-entry, post-mission depression, landing

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Tell me about the re-entry process?

“I think all the testing we did prepared me for the pressure but not the choppiness. It felt like a speedboat. That’s the best way I can explain it. And hot, easily over forty degrees. I sat there and listened for something to break, you know, how you can hear things that aren’t even there. And I kept worrying about Yerosha. I really thought he was going to vomit in the cabin. Also, I couldn’t really breathe. My lungs felt submerged.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: When did your depression start?

“I think it began when we landed. When we hit the Indian Ocean and opened the door and smelled air, I felt like the king of the world. The smell of salt water, I’ll never forget that moment. It was the best. Yerosha and I were hugging and so happy to be alive and to have completed a successful mission. After the Laika III accident, we knew that we might not make it back. We hit the homing beacon and waited. And waited. It began in the aftermath of landing. It seemed that we did something really big and that the landing team should’ve sent someone there sooner. We spent ten hours floating on the water, eating banana muffins, waiting, and there was nothing but the steady slapping of waves against the module. After such a high, it was a let down. Yerosha just kind of curled up and fell asleep. I just sat on top of the module with binoculars looking for a ship. There I was in the middle of the ocean and feeling completely alone.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Did you feel that the program had forsaken you?

“No, no it wasn’t that. It was just that after spending a few days alone in a really small place, I was spending a few more hours alone in a really big place. But everything changed. I looked out at a black ocean that seemed to go on forever. Whereas before I was in module looking out into deep space, I had suddenly found myself in the middle of the ocean—which was just as open and dark as space. The barrier had simply dissolved. I was in the void. And Yerosha just tuned out. I knew he was sick, but we didn’t speak after the initial buzz of surviving the landing. We weren’t dependent on each other in the same way, and so he stopped talking to me altogether. I’d ask how he felt and he’d give me a tough-guy response and treat me like we hadn’t spent the past few years training together. It was like we were first year cadets just meeting.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: What happened when the boat arrived?

“You know what, I didn’t expect the cameras. A burly sailor held us like we were his kids and proceeded to talk to us as if we were idiots. ‘Hello, little monkeys,’ he kept saying in his thick Kursk accent. And I could smell the vodka on his breath. ‘Wave to the cameras.’ I can still hear that voice, Marx almighty, what an idiot.

For most of the boat ride back to Hai Phong, I never saw Yerosha. We were on the same flight to Moscow, made small talk but I could feel that there was a gap forming. And then during the parade it was all as if we were best friends. But I knew he was faking it. He just seemed so removed from it all.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Did you enjoy the parade?

“I didn’t. I think there’s the idea of being a national hero and the reality of it. I was never more proud than when Khrushchev awarded me the Medal of Honor. It culminated a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed the hard work more than the reward. I haven’t been happy since I’ve returned. The mission changed me. Now all I do is sit at the zoo with all the other retired space monkeys and all the Laikas and do nothing. With nothing to do, with no mission, there’s no comradery. Life has become meaningless.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Are you still feeling suicidal?

“No. All I know is that I’m surrounded by…by plebeians. Yerosha has become lazy. He’s gotten fat and all he does is play with his grandkids. He’s a family man—completely different.”

Dr. Pyotr Zinchenko: Why don’t you start a family? You still have a couple good years left.

“With who? Name one monkey in there I’d want to share my genetics with. I can’t hold a conversation with them, let alone reproduce with them. They’re domestic monkeys raised in captivity. They’ve never had to work a day in their lives. I’ve seen the world from fifty kilometers! I am a First Officer. I’ve traveled through space. I spent years training for a mission, a state of the art mission that outshined America. I ran diagnostics, tested solar cells, my ears rang with the bedlam of re-entry. For a while I was state of the art, the pinnacle of civilization. My greatest moment wasn’t the parade through Red Square—it was the mission.”

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Epilogue

     Once in a while, Dr. Zinchenko would visit the zoo to watch the monkeys from a distance. His relationship with the two had disintegrated since their return and found it painful to speak with them. He’d wear a fishing hat and sunglasses as a simple disguise so he could observe them in their new “natural” state and make sure they were well. After all those years of work, he’d grown attached to them. Sometimes he’d go alone, and other times he’d take his kids.

He’d watch them play, especially Yerosha with his grandkids. Bion was still a loner. Dr. Zinchenko knew they, the space monkeys, were disappointed to find out that the mission wasn’t military or espionage. He had to explain to them the importance of creating weather and navigation satellites as well as understanding astronautical hygiene. Despite being interviewed separately, they both slumped in their chairs in the same way, seemed mentally withdrawn and betrayed in the same way. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and physiological testing, but they looked completely taxed. Yerosha vocalized his feelings of betrayal, complaining that ‘they’ had infected him with the influenza, all the while Bion knew about the infection.

The more Bion found out about the mission’s goals, the more he tried to twist them into potential military secrets. Dr. Zinchenko kept telling him that CCCP’s desire for a weather satellite had nothing to do with nuclear or conventional warfare, but Bion kept at it. Dr. Zinchenko kept telling him that at most the Union would be fighting small countries in non-nuclear wars once every fifteen years, but the Union would be constantly shipping goods around the world. That would be how Communism would succeed—economic revolution.

The main goal of the mission was simply to test instruments that could accurately measure the world and its weather. Yerosha made snappy comments about whether or not those goals had anything to do with him getting poisoned. Dr. Zinchenko had to continuously explain to him that we had been sending up a number of life forms to see how the mammals responded to bacteria, viruses, and radiation, most importantly advanced forms of primates. Yerosha shook his head in disbelief.

Both monkeys had tasted the vain glory of the Union. It seemed that both thought of themselves as more important than they actually were, than their brothers. They had glory on their tongues. With the mission over, both tried to settle back into traditional life at the St. Petersburg Zoo.

Yerosha had successfully reproduced with a mate. He’d reared seven children and four grandchildren. Bion hadn’t reproduced and tended to sit in a little shaded section of the habitat. Mostly, he was a loner but had moments of social behavior.

There was one hot summer day that Dr. Zinchenko will never forget. He stood with a crowd of people and, through his binoculars, Dr. Zinchenko watched Laika XV lick Bion’s face. A big, wet tongue washed the monkey’s face. Bion, still sleeping, smacked the dog, who in returned pinned Bion to the ground and began to lick the monkey’s face with greater and greater intensity.

Dr. Zinchenko recognized the dog’s desire to play, Laika had a recognizable smile, permanent and stupid. Laika would playfully growl and Bion would swipe at him. Bion leapt to his feet and began to chase Laika. Yerosha and his grandchildren began to hoot and holler. All the monkeys were after that troublemaker of a dog, who found himself with fewer and fewer places to escape. Suddenly, like a mad man, Laika leapt into the grotto.

The Yerosha’s grandkids squealed with delight at the sight. Then all the little monkeys jumped in after Laika. Dr. Zinchenko and the other zoo guests laughed and pointed at the scene. The little balls of fur floated in the water. Yerosha and Bion both paused for a moment and looked at each other. With a nod of agreement, both ran and jumped into the air, tucking into cannonballs, together flying through the air once more, before splashing into the grotto.

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