ran has its sights set on putting an astronaut on the moon by 2025, after becoming the first Islamic nation to put its own payload into space last year. But the grand goal of getting to the moon may be among the least of the benefits Iran expects to reap from its expanding space program.
Iran's motivations for a space program are most likely practical: developing possible ballistic missile technology and building international prestige as a message to friends and enemies alike, analysts say.
"They will clearly use dual-use technology for a military buildup, and as long as they at least dabble in human spaceflight, they get advantageous press coverage on that as well," said Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Iran launched its first domestically built satellite in February 2009 and promises more satellite launches in 2011. It also has offered to help any other Muslim countries with developing their own space programs, according to a FAQ recently compiled by Tiffany Chow, a researcher at Secure World Foundation, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks space security issues.
Such political signals may serve Tehran's purpose even if the country lacks the technical capabilities to back up its intentions, analysts said.
"Given the current state of Iran's launch capabilities, it is unlikely that they'd be able to develop a human spaceflight program and successfully send an Iranian to the moon by 2025," Chow pointed out.
Fits and starts
Several earlier launch attempts by Iran appeared to fail despite the country's claims otherwise, according to the Secure World Foundation FAQ. The rocket technology involves a mix of North Korean and Soviet missile designs.
The first launch attempt involved a two-stage rocket named Safir ("Ambassador" in Farsi), with a dummy satellite, Aug. 17, 2008. The rocket failed shortly after liftoff, according to outside analysts.
Confirmed success finally came with the launch of the Safir-2 rocket Feb. 3, 2009. That rocket placed an Omid satellite weighing some 44 to 60 pounds (20 to 27 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. The cube-shaped satellite is almost 16 inches (40 centimeters) on each side.