SPACE MONKEY BUSINESS
Critics say NASA is taking a giant leap backwards by irradiating monkeys in space-travel tests
The future of manned space exploration was revealed Feb. 1 when President Obama unveiled his 2011 budget request for NASA. The president proposed ending the Constellation program, an initiative introduced by President Bush in 2004 to take Americans back to the moon by 2020 and to Mars beyond.
Obama’s grounding of the manned space program has unleashed a torrent of criticism that could gut the move to prioritize robotic missions and technological advancements rather than planting flags on the moon. Nowhere will the impact of how the great space debate plays out be more pronounced than at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But far from JPL, 18 sociable monkeys sit in cages at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory in Upton, NY, where they will be injected with gamma radiation by scientists who contend that the results can be correlated to humans facing long outer space flights through fields of intense cosmic radiation.
The budget’s approval by Congress will determine the future of these squirrel monkeys in the $1.75 million experiment to see how much radiation the critters can take. Animal testing of this sort hasn’t been done in nearly three decades. While officials maintain they will follow all institutional, state and federal guidelines in caring for the monkeys, some animal rights groups are outraged.
“NASA prides itself on looking to the future, but when it comes to crude and cruel animal experiments, the agency is stuck in the Dark Ages,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo in a statement on PETA’s Web site. “Monkeys are highly social, sensitive and intelligent animals. Harming them in experiments so that NASA can check off another item on its seemingly endless list of questions about outer space is unjustifiable, especially when modern, humane research methods exist.”
The monkeys are a small but important cog in determining the future of the space agency, now that Obama has proposed ending manned space flight to the moon and Mars. Critics contend that the astronomical amounts of money saved from trying to ferry humans to outer space will result in better and more robust robotic exploration of the heavens. Supporters of Constellation counter that it has already cost $9 billion, which would be wasted along with the $2.5 billion more it will cost to shutter the program, throwing thousands out of work in the process.
President Obama has a fight on his hands with Congress over this radical departure from NASA’s focus. Last year, lawmakers made cutting Constellation programs subject to their approval. That provision sent a “direct message that the Congress believes Constellation is, and should remain, the future of America’s human space flight program,” wrote Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in December.