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The Sundowner Report

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

“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 Nov. 4 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.”

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

The group filed a federal petition for administrative action in November seeking to force 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 Web site 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 US Department of Energy, already use non-animal 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.”

Bergman’s profile on the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center Web site 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 earth-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 and other cancers. Effects of massive radiation exposure have been well documented in studies going back to the early 1950s.

An Italian experiment on the International Space Station began last summer and is described on the NASA Web site as “Anomalous Long Term Effects in Astronauts’ Central Nervous System,” or ALTEA. According to a NASA Web site page, ALTEA “will be able to “discriminate the type of particles, to measure their trajectories and the delivered energies. This will provide in-depth information on the radiation experienced and its impact on the nervous systems and visual perception. ALTEA will also develop new risk parameters and possible countermeasures aimed at the functional central nervous system risks.”

“The neurophysiologic effects of cosmic radiation in long-term space travel have never been explored with the depth of the ALTEA experiment,” reads the ALTEA page on the NASA site. “Data collected will help quantify risks to astronauts on future long distance space missions and propose optimized countermeasures.”

Presumably, the folks at NASA are aware of this experiment, which is looking for the very same answers that the squirrel monkey study ostensibly is. But there is a major difference between the Italian and American experiments: the Italians are studying the actual animals that tests are meant for — humans, not monkeys.

If the Constellation program is discontinued, inhumane primate experiments and the exorbitant and expensive dreams of human space conquest may disappear into a stellar black hole. It could be one small step for monkeys, one giant leap for robots.

Next week: “We Robot” finds that JPL, home of America’s greatest robotic explorations of the heavens, isn’t sold on deep-sixing the manned space program.

Contact the author, Michael Collins, at EnviroReporter.com.

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