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“In the 1950s, chimpanzees were taken from their natural habitat, kidnapped from their families, and used as crash-test dummies in experiments in which they had their necks broken and their skin burned off and were severely maimed for the purposes of testing missiles, helmets, and windshields,” wrote Justin Goodman, Research Associate Supervisor for PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department in a November 4, 2009 letter to NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. “Since then, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of monkeys have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and others, some of whom had their tails chopped off, have been launched into space on ill-fated missions that caused them to suffer from brain damage, heart failure, and other health complications from which they never recovered.”

“In the past, NASA has halted plans to use monkeys in space experiments when the public spoke out against this cruelty, and animals need your support once again,” says PETA’s webpage Stop NASA’s Plans to Expose Monkeys to Radiation where activists can write an e-mail to Bolden to “politely ask him to permanently halt plans to conduct radiation experiments using monkeys and to instead direct their funds to modern and humane methods of scientific inquiry.”

PETA’s plan to derail the primate research in the face of scant public awareness has received a boost from a non-profit group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, or PCRM.

The group filed a federal petition for administrative action last November seeking to compel the government to halt the squirrel monkey experiments because they violate NASA’s “Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals,” also known as the Sundowner Report. The petition notes that the space agency has not used monkeys for radiobiology research in decades. The PCRM’s website has a page where the public can petition Bolden to halt the project.

“Irradiating monkeys would be one giant leap backward for NASA,” wrote Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, PCRM’s director of research policy, in the petition. “The proposed experiments are cruel, unnecessary, and lack scientific merit. There are better, more humane ways of understanding the potential dangers of interplanetary travel to humans. Scientific progress can only proceed with a strong ethical foundation.”

The group’s petition for administrative action says that the radiation experiments will violate the standards of the Sundowner Report, a landmark 1996 NASA document that requires researchers to respect living creatures, consider the full range of societal good that may come from an experiment and utilize non-animal methods whenever possible.

“Genetic, physiological, and anatomical differences between humans and monkeys dramatically limit the conclusions that can be drawn from the planned experiments,” the petition states. “Ongoing studies, including those funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, already use nonanimal methods to determine the effects of low-dose radiation on human tissues.”

PCRW takes particular aim at the experiment’s originator, Bergman, as the NASA-funded researcher who “would involve irradiating monkeys and testing them to see how they perform on various tasks,” wrote Ferdowsian. “Bergman has used squirrel monkeys for 15 years in addiction experiments, which have involved applying electric shocks, withholding food, and completely immobilizing the animals in restraint chairs for extended periods.”

Back to the Future

Bergman’s profile on the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center website lists 122 publications that document experiments with such titles as “The effects of electric shock on responding maintained by cocaine in rhesus monkeys” and “Drug effects on primate alarm vocalizations.”

A 1994 study, “Discriminative stimulus effects of caffeine in methamphetamine-trained squirrel monkeys,” seems bizarre on the face of it while another Bergman report, published in 1997, has a particularly ominous title: “Back to the Future. A Commentary on Animal Models of Anxiety: Where Next?”

Outer space, it would seem, but the monkeys headed for the hot seat will have to endure their terrestrial-bound experiments in a high tech bunker at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

That is if public outrage doesn’t corral the simian-sacrificing agency which claims that the monkeys will not be killed and will remain at McLean Hospital, where they will be overseen by veterinarians and staff.

“The beauty of this is that we can assess at different time points after exposure, so not only do we get a sense of rather immediate effects, but then we can look again at longer time points,” Bergman told Klotz. “That kind of information just hasn’t been available.”

But this statement holds little merit considering that monkeys are biologically different enough from humans that the results of these experiments cannot be readily correlated between the species other than that radiation will kill both after extremely painful tumors, cancers and deaths. Effects of massive radiation exposure have been well documented in studies going back to the early 1950s.

Spaced Out

The current race back to the Moon and on to Mars began with former President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” speech on January 14, 2004. Coming less than a year after the Columbia shuttle tragedy that claimed seven lives in the skies over Texas, the president announced a bold but expensive plan to return humans to space. The program came to be known as Constellation.

“We will focus our future research aboard this station on the long-term effects of space travel on human biology,” President Bush said. “The environment of space is hostile to human beings. Radiation and weightlessness pose dangers to human health. And we have much to learn about their long-term effects before human crews can venture through the vast voids of space for months at a time.

“Research on board the station and here on Earth will help us better understand and overcome the obstacles that limit exploration. Through these efforts, we will develop the skills and techniques necessary to sustain further space exploration.”

While Bush spoke, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission’s ongoing robotic space operation, involving the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was successfully humming along. Since the rovers have continued to work beyond their primary functions, their missions have been extended five times.

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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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