The Space Baboons Are a Warning

“Ad Astra” is about human hubris — and finding joy back here on earth

Summer Anne Burton
Sep 30, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Numerous spoilers for “Ad Astra” ahead…

Halfway through James Gray’s pensive sci-fi / dad-feels film Ad Astra, a distress call leads Brad Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, and another astronaut to a small spaceship that they note has been approved for “animal research.” When they try to respond, no one answers. When they enter, no one can be seen or heard. They split up.

When Major McBride loses communication with his colleague, he makes his way back towards him. After passing by ominously shredded padded walls, he finds the man shaking strangely, the front half of his body obscured. A long second passes, and then the theater I was in let out an audible gasp as a rageful baboon peeks over the unfortunate astronaut’s shoulder, blood smeared on its face. In the fight scene that follows, Roy is able to get the upper hand, killing the baboons and escaping with the human body — though it turns out to be DOA.

The film quickly moves forward in search of Roy’s apparently demented father, who he’s just learned is still alive after he went dark from an alien research project on Neptune 16 years before. En route, after the attack, McBride checks in with his daily psych eval, noting that he has some sympathy for the space baboons. “I understand their rage,” he says.

In Film Comment, Jonathan Romney as “deranged” and “utterly incongruous,” but I found it believable, heartbreaking, and directly linked to the central themes of the film — so much so that I couldn’t stop thinking about the baboons whenever I thought about the not-so-distant future that Ad Astra presents.

In the real world — in the recent past, rather than the “not so distant future” presented in Ad Astra — 32 primates, and hundreds of other animals, have been caged, trained, strapped down, and flown to space, many of them sent by the United States.

In 1948, Albert, a rhesus macaque rode 39 miles on a rocket. He died of suffocation in flight. A year later, we sent the depressingly monikered Albert II, who survived the flight itself, reaching past the “Kármán line” to become the first primate in space, but died on impact upon return. Albert III (yes, they just kept naming them Albert), a crab-eating macaque, flew just a few months later and died in an explosion. Albert IV died upon impact as well. Albert V died due to parachute failure. Albert VI (also known as Yorick, alas) survived his landing but died of complications after a couple hours. He had been accompanied by eleven mice, two of them overheated to death while waiting for the recovery team to open their sealed capsule that baked in the sun on earth after landing.

Miss Baker. Photo:

By 1952, the U.S. sent two more crab-eating macaques, Patricia and Mike. Their test, designed to examine the physical impact of space flight, was only 26 kilometers — and they did survive, “retiring” at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.. A few years later, a squirrel monkey called Gordo was launched aboard Jupiter AM-13, and then killed due to mechanical failure. In 1959, we put another squirrel monkey, Miss Baker, and a rhesus macaque named Able, onto the Jupiter AM-18. They landed and Miss Baker lived to be 27, but Able died four days after completing the mission, due to anesthesia complications in surgery to remove a medical electrode implanted for the flight. Her body was taxidermied and put on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum.

The first hominid launched into space in 1961 was a chimpanzee born in Cameroon, captured by trappers, and then shipped to an exotic animal farm in Miami where he was purchased by the US Air Force. He was among 40 other chimpanzees purchased by the Air Force, and he wasn’t given the name Ham until he returned to earth safely (officials didn’t want to humanize the chimp too much if the mission failed). Ham was taught to pull levers in response to flashing lights; when he failed, the soles of his feet were shocked with electricity. Later, Enos, another chimpanzee, would orbit the earth — though his planned three full orbits were cut short because an “avoidance conditioning” unit malfunctioned, shocking Enos with electricity 76 times while he floated in space.

Enos being prepared for insertion, holding his handler’s hands. Photo:

In 1961, a squirrel monkey named Goliath died in the Atlas rocket explosion. Scatback, a rhesus macaque, was lost at sea after landing from a sub-orbital flight one month later. Bonny, a pig-tailed macaque, was on the first multi-day monkey flight. He was supposed to orbit earth for 30 days, earning his food by pushing buttons for 15 minutes at a time. He had 26 sensors implanted in his body, including six in his brain and one in each eye. The mission was cut short early when he stopped eating or drinking while in space. He died the day after landing.

Photo: //

Of course, there are also the dogs. During the 1950s and ’60s, the Soviet Union sent over 50 dogs into space. Stray dogs were chosen because it was thought that they would be more tolerant of the stresses of space flight, having endured so loneliness and neglect already. Tsygan and Dezik were the first, becoming the first “higher organisms” to survive a spaceflight. Tsygan was lucky, adopted as a pet after the mission, but Dezik was sent back into space just a week after landing and died, along with another dog named Lisa, when the parachute failed to deploy. Laika, the famous stray mutt from the streets of Moscow who died of stress and overheating just a few hours into her flight (the plan all along was to leave her to die in space) makes me too sad to continue with the dogs.

There were others — tortoises, frogs, rabbits, one french cat, many mice and rats, and bugs. In the 1980s, a biomedical research mission called Bion 7, which was a collaboration between nine countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, brought many animals on board, including two monkeys. The mission included ten newts who, as part of a study on the “rate of regeneration in space,” had parts of their front legs amputated and part of their eyes removed before launch. Various animals are still launched into space to this day, including two different monkeys sent by Iran in 2013, and from 2015 claimed Russia was training four rhesus macaques — the same species as Alberts I-VI — to prepare them for space travel.

The justification for inflicting such cruelty, confusion, isolation, and pain on innocent beings who are obviously capable of suffering but incapable of understanding any reason for or having any personal motivation to be strapped into a rocket and flown into space is simply: we wanted to.

Frog in space, 1992. Photo: NASA

The justification for inflicting such cruelty, confusion, isolation, and pain on innocent beings who are obviously capable of suffering but incapable of understanding any reason for or having any personal motivation to be strapped into a rocket and flown into space is simply: we wanted to.

OK, perhaps you feel it’s more complicated than that; scientific study helps us understand the world around us and has led, among other advances, to our understanding of the climate crisis today. Still, space travel itself — putting “man on the moon” or searching for extraterrestrial life — has not been a need so much as an unending, obsessive human curiosity. The degree to which it is plausibly a “need” may depend on whether you think it is a good idea for humankind to someday try to colonize other planets, having basically laid waste to earth.

Isn’t that what we’re searching for out there in the first place — lives that are different from our own but incredibly, magically, also alive in this same universe with us? They’re right here among us and look at what we’ve done to them.

In any case — if space travel is important enough to humanity that sacrifices must be made to achieve it, shouldn’t those be human sacrifices? What is the reasonable ethical framework that is okay with plucking an animal (in the case of chimpanzees, our closest biological relative) out of its home, subjecting it to behavior modification, and then launching it into space where it will most likely die suffering? Because they’re “other”? Isn’t that what we’re searching for out there in the first place — lives that are different from our own but incredibly, magically, also alive in this same universe with us? They’re right here among us and look at what we’ve done to them.

Ad Astra is not about these difficult questions, except — it kind of is, actually?

By the time Major McBride reaches his father, H. Clifford McBride, we’ve pieced together a bit more context about their relationship and Roy’s adult life in general. His dad was a hero whose perceived bravery and fame must have led Roy himself to the space program, even though Clifford was not exactly a great dad — clearly preoccupied with his life’s work of exploring the galaxy and far less interested in his own family than he was with the mission.

You’ve also learned that Roy took after his father in more ways than one and let his own marriage fall apart because he too was preoccupied with his work. Through voiceover and daily psych evals with a computer, we also come to realize that Roy, whose exterior is carefully stoic, is deeply torn about how to reconcile his conflicting dad-feels, grieving for his marriage, bitter about the commercialization of space exploration, and most of all that he is constantly repressing all of his completely understandable feelings of rage, sadness, and loneliness — because that’s what the job requires.

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

When Roy confronts his father, Clifford quickly confirms what I imagine to be many of Roy’s deepest fears directly: I don’t care about you or your mother, I only care about this work. He wants to continue his mission to find signs of extraterrestrial life in the universe, and is unfazed by the emotional appeal of his own son. He does have an intellectual interest in Roy, asking if he would consider staying and becoming his new research partner, continuing to explore the remote possibility of contacting life out there despite years of absolute silence from the rest of the universe.

Space movies often valorize astronauts, but Ad Astra ends up making the whole endeavor seem deeply sad and basically pointless. In the future the movie presents, humans have started to colonize the moon and Mars, and commercial space travel is a real thing. There’s even a Subway on the moon! And for what? Because we could.

To me, this is a movie about human hubris. The reason we sent chimpanzees into space in the past is the reason there are killer baboons in space in the future is the reason Roy is so deeply unhappy. It is a blind adherence to our own self-obsession, our wish to become God himself, to control the universe, to see and discover it all, our belief that it’s a right to bend all other species on the planet to our tastes and use them however we choose, from science experiments to unpaid labor. Our unending obsession with discovering life in other parts of the universe might seem innocent enough until you remember how we treat the life that surrounds us on this planet. We refuse to slow down no matter who gets in the way, and we never stopped to ask why our curiosity is worth so much more than someone else’s pain — hence, why not snatch a monkey from the jungle, trained them to do what we want using electrical shocks, and launch them into space? We can, so we do.

In its last moments, Ad Astra takes what was, for me, an incredibly moving turn towards optimism when Roy decides to choose a dangerous journey back to earth and attempt to reconcile with his wife, rather than staying to work on his father’s science experiments. We have so much to be thankful for and to explore, right here — without needing to find more, use more, and hurt more. How lucky we are to be alive! And on this earth, a place so rich with ecological and cultural diversity that one lifetime is not close to long enough to explore it all. Why can’t that be enough?

Tenderly

A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

Summer Anne Burton

Written by

The main things about me are I'm from Texas and I love animals. 💕

Tenderly

Tenderly

A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

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