Simian Success Story

August 16, 2017

In the early days of our space program, scientists tried to account for every danger that an astronaut might encounter in orbit. In addition to the lack of atmosphere, extreme temperature shifts, and dangerous impacts with space debris, there are also bands of radiation that can cook an astronaut right through his suit! The seriousness of this danger was discovered during the simian astronaut program, and the bravery of one tough little chimpanzee gave us the information we needed to protect later human astronauts from exposure.

Bubbles, a common Pan troglodytes chimpanzee, was among the first wave of simian astronauts that NASA trained for long-term habitation in space. For his mission, Bubbles went to live in a specially designed zero-G chimp habitat in orbit some 1200 miles above the earth. During that time, Bubbles and his fellow simian astronauts were exposed to dangerously high doses of gamma and neutron radiation, which caused radiation sickness. After the primatologists at Cape Canaveral discovered that the chimps were ill, they ended the mission, just 32 days into its planned 90-day duration, and the chimps were brought back to Earth. Most of the 12 chimps on the mission did not survive the devastating exposure, but Bubbles is unique. Although veterinarians are not sure how it happened, they agree that the radiation altered the brain of Bubbles, and gave him the capacity to learn and absorb information at an astonishing rate.

His rudimentary sign language skills quickly gave way to writing and then typing. He rapidly exhausted the library at the Cape, then began asking difficult questions on particle physics, astrogation, and ethics. His handlers, realizing that he was progressing at a geometric rate, helped him get into MIT, where he earned a PhD in record time.

Since becoming a Doctor, Bubbles has continued his work, published numerous papers in peer-reviewed journals, taken a teaching position at UCLA, and penned a best-selling autobiography, “From the Trees to Tenure” which will soon be a major motion picture starring Tinseltown heartthrob, Marlon Dean. In recent weeks, Bubbles has also weighed in on the ethical dilemma surround the Robot Personhood movement.

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