I wanted to try something a little different with this post. Perhaps it is the result of a few years spent as a DJ, but a lot of times when I see a story in the news, a song will pop into my head, a song that is usually related to the story in some odd way. That was the case when I read this report about Iran's nascent space program and their successful attempt to launch a monkey into space. The song this conjured up was, of course, The Pixies “Monkey Gone To Heaven”. So the idea of this post is to talk a little about the story and then a little about the song.
Space, The Final Frontier
With news from and about Iran dominated by that country's nuclear research program, the story of their space launch came as a bit of a surprise. But Iran has ambitions to become a space-faring nation in their own right. In 2009, Iran launched their first home-built satellite into orbit. The Iranian government has stated that their goal is to launch a man into space by 2019, using domestically designed and produced equipment.
By comparison, the mission announced this past Sunday was quite modest – a capsule carrying a single monkey as a passenger was carried aloft by a Pishgam (or “Pilgrim”) missile to an altitude of 75 miles before returning to Earth. In a good sign for Iran's future astronauts, their monkey passenger apparently survived the flight unharmed.
Though modest in scope – both the US and Soviet Union were doing this sort of thing more than 50 years ago - this mission passed a couple of important milestones for Iran: they crossed the threshold of space (typically defined as any altitude above 62 miles) and managed the G-forces encountered in descent well enough for their primate passenger to survive. Since man too is a primate, the monkey's survival is indication that Iran has solved some of the basic technological problems associated with returning a manned-capsule safely to Earth.
But there was likely a subtext for Iran's monkey mission. A rocket that can carry a capsule into space is also capable of carrying a warhead thousands of miles to an enemy's territory. The United States slipped into a full-blown panic in 1957 after the Soviet Union successfully orbited the Sputnik satellite – not only had US pride been hurt by being beaten into space by the “Reds”, but it was also a clear indication that the Soviet Union now possessed ICBMs capable of reaching the United States. In this time of high tensions with the US and Israel, a similar message could be drawn from this weekend's Iranian journey into space.
Monkey Gone To Heaven
From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, The Pixies would become one of the bands that defined the college radio/alternative sound, at least before the genre was largely consumed by the Grunge scene out of Seattle, though The Pixies would influence that genre as well. They were a band that specialized in the sound that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain would describe as “quiet, then loud”. The Pixies were aided in this expression by the smooth lead vocals of singer Black Francis (later Frank Black), with backing vocals by guitarist Kim Deal. They layered lyrics that often trended towards the bizarre over music that could range from light and melodic to crashing walls of sound – sometimes within the same song.
“Monkey Gone To Heaven” is an apt expression of this songwriting formula. From the album Doolittle, the track is an example of The Pixies at their highest point as a band. The lyrics of “Monkey Gone To Heaven” go off on explorations of environmentalism, religion and man's relationship with the divine - a relationship that Francis seems to believe the divine will get the worst of. Early on, the song talks about Neptune, Roman god of the seas, being “killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey” (and as someone who grew up in NJ, I can totally see that happening). In this respect, the conceit of the “monkey gone to heaven” is an indication of man's diminishment of the divine through the elevation of a primate - and keep in mind that man too is a primate – to the realm of the gods.
You have to wonder what Iran's ayatollahs would make of that?