I don’t remember what caused me to be looking at this article from an ancient issue of TIME magazine, but I know I stopped looking at it exactly two sentences in.
Have you ever been reading a novel that dealt with a subject you don’t know much about, but it all seemed plausible to you so you figured the author had done his homework. But then you come across a bit that touches on a subject you happen to know a bit about, and it’s so howlingly wrong it makes you cringe? That happened to me with Tom Clancy’s book Rainbow Six. The book is chiefly concerned with a crack anti-terrorist team killing bad guys and doing cool shit. As far as that goes, it’s pretty decent, and there’s a lot of detail that made me think “Hey, Tom Clancy knows his shit.” But there’s one bit in there where a guy tries to send an email to someone, but it gets caught in the modem or something. You know, because the internet is a series of tubes, right? That one tiny bit made me sit back and think “Wait, if he got that so badly wrong, how do I know he didn’t get all this military stuff wrong too?” Of course, it’s possible that since the computer email bit was just a tiny part of the story, he didn’t bother to do exhaustive research about it, and made a mistake any non-geek could have made in 1998. But it still made me stop dead in my tracks and wonder about the issue.
Similarly, that TIME article has a huge gaffe in the second sentence. And it’s one that probably has nothing at all to do with the rest of the story (I wouldn’t know, since I still have not read any farther than that sentence.) But it was enough to make me stop reading. The sentence claims that the first primate in orbit was a chimp called Ham. Now if you don’t know a whole bunch about the history of space flight, that claim probably doesn’t seem all that odd to you. But I know some of you are laughing with me right now, or at least smiling a knowing smile.
Let me explain. Before sending people up into space, animals were used as test subjects. The first animal larger than a fly shot into space was a rhesus monkey named Albert who was launched in the nose cone of a captured German V-2 missile from the desert of New Mexico by the US military, in 1948. Albert took a short sub-orbital flight and crashed back to earth, dying on impact. Three further monkeys (imaginatively named Albert II, Albert III, and Albert IV) were launched in V-2s during the “Albert Series” of launches, all of them dying on impact.
All through the 50s the US continued to shoot monkeys and other animals into space. All of these flights were sub-orbital, meaning they just went straight up and straight back down again. The aforementioned Ham took a sub-orbital flight aboard a Redstone rocket on January 31, 1961. So Ham was not, in fact, the first primate to orbit the Earth–he was merely one of many primates who flew sub-orbital flights into space. Ham’s fellow chimpanzee astronaut Enos flew the first chimped orbital mission, in November of 1961.
But no, I’m not taking the reporter to task for mixing up Ham and Enos. Even I wouldn’t be so nit-picky. No, the truth is, Enos was only the third primate to orbit the Earth. The Soviet Union launched two primates named Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov into orbit in April and August 1961, respectively. While the US dicked around with monkeys and chimps, the Soviets threw a few dogs into orbit, called that good, and then put humans on board and launched them.
To paraphrase Dilbert, I guess the successful reporters know that humans are primates too.