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A small knot of PETA protesters stood outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum January 14 with signs that read “Stop Radiation Tests On Monkeys” and “Astronauts, Yes, Radiation Monkeys, No!” A similar protest was held two days earlier at NASA Langley Research Center in Long Island, where PETA members dressed as monkeys confined themselves in cages for passersby to see.

In the study, the monkeys will be shot up with a single substantial dose of gamma radiation, which NASA’s project leader Bergman insists would simulate what a human would receive over the 130 to 260 days it would take to travel to and explore the red planet, depending on rocket velocity, planetary transfer orbits, and the closeness of the planets.

“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 PETA Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo in a statement on the group’s website. “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 controversy has been picked up by Discovery News and a Scripts News Service wire story appeared in Kansas City.

“We realized there was a need for this kind of work,” project originator Jack Bergman, Ph.D., a behavioral pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in Boston, told Discovery News reporter Irene Klotz for an October 29, 2009 article entitled “NASA To Start Irradiating Monkeys – Spider monkeys will be exposed to regular, low dose radiation as NASA invesgitates [sic] the effects of long term space travel.”

“There’s a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts,” Bergman continued. “That’s not been well assessed.”

The subheadline of the article is inaccurate in two significant ways: the monkeys won’t be exposed to “regular” radiation, but rather one massive gamma radiation injection, and the radiation is not “low dose” as the dose is supposed to simulate months’ worth of “HVE,” or high energy particles of high atomic number, that people exploring the Moon or traveling to Mars would experience zipping through them.

Bergman’s statement that the risks to astronauts have “not been well assessed” is suspect. The risks have been assessed and they are significant. President Bush stated this when he announced the initiative.

Another article for Discovery News penned five months earlier by the same reporter entitled “Space Torso Reveals Cancer Risk for Astronauts” says “The information collected so far confirms that NASA’s current guidelines for assessing radiation risks are pretty much on target, said Francis Cucinotta, a doctor and researcher who heads radiation studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.”

So if the risk assessments are “pretty much on target,” why would NASA spend $1.75 million on Bergman’s experiments to nuke two dozen squirrel monkeys? The answer may lie in a passage later in the article:

Cucinotta figures the agency has about five years to come up with some solutions to the radiation problem or find evidence that refutes current assessments of the risks. More shielding on moon and Mars ships probably isn’t the answer, Cucinotta told Discovery News. The additional weight would make the spacecraft too heavy to launch with today’s technologies. (Our emphasis)

That evidence could be obtained by showing that the monkeys essentially shake off the radiation and continue to perform tasks effectively since shielding and gene-repairing pharmaceuticals seem out of the question.

“We’d all be cured of cancer on Earth if we knew how to do this,” Cucinotta told Discovery News of the use of drugs to diminish radiation damage.

This seems to suggest that NASA is hoping that the monkeys will still be able to perform tasks efficiently even though they’ve been radiologically poisoned in order to justify high radiation exposure for future outer space explorers. With the dangers of radiation well known for over a half century, through thousands of tests on plants, animals and humans, why else would NASA nuke the monkeys?

NASA admittedly doesn’t know how to do how to send astronauts safely into outer space for extended periods of time, but zapping monkeys won’t solve NASA’s space travel conundrum. Humans won’t be exposed to outer space radiation through a massive one-time injection and humans aren’t monkeys.

Radiation experiments on animals have already yielded voluminous amounts of data over the decades, nearly all of which came to the same conclusion: radiation can put a whole world of hurt into animals and, by extension, humans. The squirrel monkeys to be tested on are about to find that out themselves.

PETA Push Back

PETA, which claims two million members, has tried to publicize the impending experiments citing the disturbing effects that radiating monkeys can have including the induction of fatal cancers, brain tumors, cataracts, teeth falling out, cognitive decline and self-mutilation.

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  1. Before we begin colonizing other planets, we should probably first learn to peacefully coexist with the animals on this planet rather than treating them as resources that we are free to exploit.

    Readers can contact NASA Administrator Charles Bolden via PETA’s online Action Alert: http://www.peta.org/nasa

  2. I grew up in the 1960s and we were the dead center target of a generation raised to expect and adore space exploration. It was supposed to prove that we were better than everyone else. Such a sad commentary on what has become the ultimately corrupt core of that concept that its legacy has been reduced to a plan to torture a small group of little monkeys. As Michael points out, we already know what happens when a living creature is nuked with radiation. It is not good. So what is the point? Aside from satiating someone’s sadism or someone’s incomprehensible indifference to suffering, it must ultimately be about a lot of money. A lot. It is always the money.

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