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With Bush’s manned space initiative headed for the chopping block, why is NASA nuking monkeys?

EnviroReporter.com – February 1, 2010

The future of manned space exploration may be revealed Monday when President Obama unveils his 2011 budget request for NASA. The budget’s approval by Congress may also determine the future of 28 squirrel monkeys and renewed animal radiation experiments.

Obama’s budget will request an extra $6 billion over five years to develop a commercial spacecraft that could taxi astronauts into low earth orbit, according to a background briefing from an Administration official Sunday. Obama’s 2011 budget for NASA increases funding $276 million to $19 billion.

Much like the Department of Defense looking to private contractors to ferry its satellites into space, NASA will have to do the same if the president isn’t stymied by Congress. Congressional delegations from Alabama, Florida and Texas will undoubtedly be upset with no additional funding to continue President Bush’s ambitious Constellation initiative launched in 2004.

Constellation envisioned sending humans back to the Moon by 2020 with Mars exploration to follow. An Obama commission has already reported that it would take at least $3 billion a year to finance human spaceflight beyond Earth and extend the International Space Station’s life until 2020. Subsequent yearly increases will bring it to $21 billion in 2015. NASA would receive $100 billion over the next five years with Congressional approval.

The space agency will run out of rockets to put humans in space once the Space Shuttle is retired this year, after four more flights, costing 7,000 jobs. American astronauts will have to hitch rides into space now that two new rockets, the Ares I, and the larger Ares V have been cut.

President Obama has a fight on his hands with Congress over this radical departure in NASA focus. Last year, lawmakers made cuts to 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.

America’s manned space program is at a crossroads. Most if not all NASA missions can be completed robotically, leaving Constellation supporters with the main argument that human exploration inspires the nation. That powerful notion worked during the Cold War, but may not now considering the astronomical cost of keeping people alive in the forbidding environment of space.

The question of unmanned space exploration also gives cause to re-examine of NASA’s claimed need to irradiate primates to see how humans in space will function when bombarded with intense radiation outside the protective atmosphere of the Earth. It also reignite debate over the space agency’s high-flying schemes based on outdated notions of space exploration first envisioned by Nazis that have been eclipsed by technological advancements in robotics.

NASA’S Nazi Past

Bush’s vision for space exploration actually came from the leader of a large group of 120 German scientists captured at the end of World War II, Waffen SS-Sturmbannführer Wernher von Braun.

Von Braun’s feared V-2 rocket rained death and destruction upon English and Belgian civilians during the London Blitz. The weapons were built by concentration camp slaves who died by the thousands working on them. The prisoners perished from starvation, poisoning and execution.

But apparently one man’s Nazi is another man’s hero.

“Wernher von Braun is, without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history,” according to NASA’s website biography. “His crowning achievement, as head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.”

Given NASA’s indifference to von Braun’s Nazi past, the agency’s ethical orbit may be far enough out that the questionable nuking of monkeys is justified. Comments by the project’s leader Jack Bergman also suggest that NASA is hoping to find that the intense outer space radiation astronauts would experience might not impair them as much as previously known, making manned space travel possible even if potentially harmful for the crews.

Regardless of President Obama’s refigured vision for America’s space program, powerful and entrenched forces are not likely to back down in their fight to protect their investment in a continued manned program, $9.1 billion of which has already been spent on Constellation.

In the fight over whether Constellation is totally eclipsed or not is a relatively small study, yet to be finally approved, that could prove to be a stumbling block: irradiating monkeys with massive doses of radiation to learn just how much radiation astronauts endure.

If tests show that the monkeys survive intense nuclear bombardment, the findings could support Constellation by suggesting that it’s safe to nuke humans with powerful radiation for months at a time even though no amount of ionizing radiation is safe according to a 2005 National Academies of Sciences Report.

“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said committee chair Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. “The health risks – particularly the development of solid cancers in organs – rise proportionally with exposure.”

Furthermore, the National Research Council cautioned in early 2008 that present technology to protect against space radiation “would not allow a human crew to undertake a Mars mission and might also seriously limit long-term Moon activity.”

Unless Obama convinces Congress to scuttle Constellation entirely, based on economic and ethical intelligence, monkeys and humans will be bombarded with withering amounts radiation, not in the name of good science, but in the name of the national will. It’s a plan only a Nazi could love.

We Robot

Keeping astronauts alive in space, however heroic, costs up to 100 times more than using robotic spacecraft and rovers. Critics of manned interplanetary exploration point out that we are already on Mars with the rovers Opportunity and Spirit which have outlived their original missions by years and have provided NASA far more valuable data than ever imagined.

Considering the advancements in computers since the days of the Apollo Moon landings, where today’s common Blackberry has more computing power than all of NASA had guiding the exploration, robotics are superb interplanetary explorers.

Even if Americans landed again on the Moon or even Mars, they would need robotics and computer technology to accomplish every task including the primary one, keeping the astronauts alive. Robots don’t run out of air, freeze to death, get burned alive or have their brains scrambled by radiation so intense NASA still can’t protect against it.

Robots just cease functioning. Or at least they’re supposed to. Two weeks ago, NASA announced that the still-roving Spirit could rove no more and was repositioning itself to catch the Sun’s faint rays to power out of hibernation once Mar’s fierce winter is over in about six months.

Before getting stuck in sand, Spirit had already outlived its original three-month mission lasting six years, traveling twelve miles on the Martian surface and successfully surviving thousands of daily temperature swings of as much as 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Still, Bush’s Constellation program continues on, tackling one of the main obstacles to manned travel and exploration beyond Earth’s protective atmospheric bubble: radiation. Intense high energy radiation in outer space could fry astronauts’ brains making it impossible operate spacecraft or undertake experiments.

That’s where Constellation’s squirrel monkeys come in. NASA plans to spend $1.75 million to inject over two dozen monkeys with huge doses of gamma radiation to see, essentially, what happens. The agency then plans to extrapolate data from the tests, which can make the animals go mad attacking themselves as their teeth fall out as a result of the radiation exposure.

Fry to Fly

The monkey study, yet to be approved by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, is the first of its kind in nearly three decades. The analysis is reminiscent of the experiments done on animals and humans that led to the biological nuclear and chemical wastes that resulted in a dump on Department of Veterans Affairs land in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood.

Those sometimes-gruesome experiments were condemned by medical professionals and political leaders in the 1990s as part of the larger issue of experimenting with unaware humans who had a variety of radiation tests performed on them in the 1950s and 1960s.

EnviroReporter.com‘s extensive investigation into radiation experiments on animals and people at UCLA and the West LA VA, as reported on in “Where the Bodies are Buried,” suggests that there may be no need to nuke squirrel monkeys as the results are already well known: intense radiation exposure can disable and kill mammals. Thousands of experiments have already shown this.

One of the only known ways to protect against this radiation, lead shielding, would be required in spacecraft and astronauts’ suits and would render spacecraft and astronauts too heavy to be practical. Other ideas, like using the spacecraft’s liquid nitrogen fuel to act as a deflector in the hull, haven’t been tested.

Cosmic rays consist of high energy protons and other nuclei so intense that the Apollo astronauts reported seeing flashes in their eyeballs. The 24 astronauts who made up the Apollo program, the only time men ever in deep space, are too small a number statistically to be able to be scientifically representative but it is thought that they have suffered a higher rate of cancer. Plus the longest flight the Apollo astronauts rode on was less than two weeks.

Estimates of radiation exposure in outer space do exist. An unshielded interplanetary astronaut would receive about 400 to 900 milli-Sieverts (mSv) annually, compared to 2.4 mSv on Earth. Even a ‘shielded’ mission to Mars lasting 30 months would irradiate humans with up to 1,000 mSv (1 Sv) which is approaching the lifetime limit, 1 to 4 Sv, advised for so-called “low Earth orbit activities” of astronauts as determined by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

No known shielding would be totally effective against both galactic cosmic rays and higher energy waves that wouldn’t weigh hundreds of metric tons. Even that shielding can cause reflective ‘bounce back’ or secondary radiation exposure.

The radiation in outer space is intense, especially during solar proton events when the Sun emits a solar flare or coronal mass ejections.

NASA found this out the ‘hot’ way when it launched its 2001 Mars Odyssey on April 7, 2001. The spacecraft was designed to measure radiation on the way to Mars and while in the Martian orbit. On board was a sophisticated device called the Martian Radiation Environment Experiment, or MARIE, which started malfunctioning in late 2003 after a series of particularly strong solar flares blasted the spacecraft.

Marie was toasted with particle radiation. MARIE could not be salvaged demonstrating that even robotic missions in outer space aren’t immune from destructive cosmic radiation. The solar proton event that disabled MARIE was not detected on Earth meaning that the radiation was directional and therefore impossible to predict. This could obviously have a deleterious effect on any manned missions to Mars.

Perhaps the answer is in a reassessment of the actual effects of high energy radiation to find out if it isn’t so hot after all.

Irradiating two dozen squirrel monkeys to test their cognitive responses suggests that NASA knows it won’t be able to adequately shield astronauts living on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars. If the monkeys perform effectively even after being dosed with a massive shot of gamma radiation, the argument could be made that humans could do the same. Monkey see, Man do.

Monkeying Around

Scant media attention has paid to the moral and ethical issues surrounding renewed radiation experimentation on primates, let alone the questionable science behind it. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has tried to change that but the effort has barely made a blip on the media radar so far despite a spat of protests.

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.

“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.

The cost of robotic, unmanned missions is estimated to be between 10 to 100 times cheaper than manned ones. Bush posited, however, that keeping humans alive in outer space was cheaper than getting them there:

“Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far-lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost.”

“Also the moon is home to abundant resources,” the president said at NASA headquarters. “Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air.”

Does ‘harvesting’ Moon dirt with the hope to make rocket fuel or breathable air justify the breathtaking costs of such an endeavor? One of Constellation’s greatest weaknesses, according to critics, is that it has no realistic goals that would concretely benefit mankind, such as global warming work, other than just humans getting to the Moon and Mars. Even if NASA explorers can figure a way to breath Moon dirt and fuel their rockets with it, they’ll still have to deal with the radiation.

Dr. Strangelove

Bush’s new vision was actually a co-opted old vision of one of Hitler’s favorite SS officers, Wernher von Braun. Captured at the end of World War II with 120 fellow German rocket scientists, von Braun became a NASA legend.

The “Bowl” rocket test stands built at the astronomically polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County California are duplicates of von Braun’s V-2 stands in Germany and can still be seen from the San Fernando Valley today.

Constellation’s concept was envisioned by von Braun with a series of articles in eight issues of Collier’s magazine starting in March 1952. They laid out von Braun’s vision of using a fully reusable multi-stage rocket, the conceptual precursor of the Space Shuttle, to construct a huge space station.

The floating lab envisioned by von Braun would make civilian and military observations of Earth, conduct experiments in zero-gravity and build spaceships for travel to the Moon and beyond. The last installment of the magazine articles had humans traveling to Mars.

The Collier’s series was handsomely illustrated and so charmed the public that von Braun became a television darling. Walt Disney asked von Braun to help him design Disneyland’s “Tomorrow Land” exhibit.

The former Wehrmacht Major is one of the inspirations for the titular character in the 1964 black comedy film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove is played maniacally by Peter Sellers as a mad German rocket scientist in a wheelchair, half-paralyzed with an out-of-control right arm given to Nazi salutes or strangling himself, all the while addressing the President character, also played by Sellers, as “Mein Fuhrer.”

Von Braun’s background was no laughing matter, however, and torturing animals to help fulfill his space vision is heavy with historic irony. Before von Braun became an icon in the space program, his weapons killed thousands of civilians and slaves.

In “Bowled Over,” we examined von Braun’s most terrifying invention, the Nazi V-2:

The V-2, or Vergeltungswaffe 2, was the first ballistic missile to reach sub-orbital spaceflight and was the forerunner of modern rockets. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched at Allied targets by the German Wehrmacht in World War II, killing an estimated 7,250 military personnel and civilians, mostly in London.

Over 20,000 Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp inmates died constructing V-2s, with 9000 dying from exhaustion alone. Around 350 of these Nazi slaves were hanged, including 200 for sabotage, with the remainder shot or dying from disease and starvation. Von Braun, an officer in the Waffen-SS from May 1940 until the end of the war when he escaped with 120 scientists to surrender to the Americans, admitted working at the V-2 plant many times but denied ever visiting the nearby concentration camp.

However, von Braun disclosed in an August 15, 1944 letter to the manager of V-2 production that he personally selected labor slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp to work at the rocket factory, slaves he described 25 years later in an interview as being in “pitiful shape.”

Equally at home in photographs with Hitler and Himmler as well as presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, von Braun’s work on the Apollo Space Program earned him the National Medal of Science from President Ford in 1977.

The Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp supplied slave labor for Nordhausen missile works, where prisoners were fed a single piece of bread a day and literally worked to death. Nazi aviation doctors suffocated gypsies in pressure chambers and force-fed Jews nothing but seawater for weeks in gruesome experiments to determine what pilots could endure.

Von Braun was not the only Nazi among the 765 German scientists imported to the United States between 1945 and 1955. Approximately 80% of these men were members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Nor were scientists the only Nazi export harvested during America’s Operation Paperclip which continued until 1973,. America brought the darker legacy of Nazi Germany with it returning home.

Operation Paperclip built on the results of Nazi research on captive human subjects. Researchers hoping to develop a truth serum at the Edgewood Arsenal, in Maryland, worked with Operation Paperclip personnel to test psychoactive drugs on almost 7,000 unwitting American soldiers between 1955 and 1975.

“Those experiments, and Paperclip itself, were among the first manifestations of what became a guiding principle of the Cold War, that the ends sometimes justified the means” wrote Christine Gibson, a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

“I have always been outraged at the adoration our country has given this Nazi von Braun,” says the Reverend John Southwick of Simi Valley, California. “I grew up in the London Blitz in WWII. Those Nazis took away my childhood.”

“I lived three miles from the de Havilland Aircraft Company aircraft factory where they built engines for fighters,” says Southwick who grew up in Edgeware, a pleasant suburb ten miles outside of central London with a large Jewish population. “The plant was well camouflaged, but the Nazis tried to bomb it from 1939 to 1945. They never hit it but the houses all around it were hit. My house was hit twice, not a direct hit but lots of damage.”

Southwick now lives next to the former Rocketdyne lab where von Braun’s German test stands were recreated. “Getting us to the moon was a great feat, but nothing can wipe away the shame of being responsible for thousands of deaths. Von Braun never owned up to his role in World War II,” Southwick says.

“The Good Reverend John” Southwick is a member of a community activist group called the Radiation Rangers who have such monikers as “Toxic Terry” and “Perchlorate Patty.”

The group has fought development of land next to the lab in Runkle Canyon because of radiation and heavy metal contamination concerns. Since 2006, the Rangers have battled mega-developer KB Home over a proposed 461 home development in the canyon which has tested high in radioactive strontium-90 and heavy metals including arsenic, chromium and vanadium.

“Americans have always loved our space program and I’m no exception,” says Southwick. “But this collective amnesia about who von Braun really was speaks to a larger moral failing. The ‘anything goes’ mantra practiced by the aerospace industry and NASA itself, has polluted Rocketdyne with incredible amounts of contamination. The moral failing today is the lab owner, Boeing, and NASA doing everything they can to get out of that place before properly cleaning it up.”

Regardless, von Braun’s controversial past has not persuaded many aerospace workers that his contribution to American rocketry was nothing short of legendary. Robert S. Kraemer is one of them. Kraemer is the author of Rocketdyne: Powering Humans into Space (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2006), and served as head of Advanced Design at Rocketdyne and later as NASA’s Director of Planetary Exploration.

“It is noteworthy that von Braun’s progression of missions, from a reusable space shuttle to a space station to landing humans on Mars, is the plan that NASA adopted almost from its beginning, even though it would not appear as a formal written and approved plan for NASA until January 2004,” wrote Kraemer. “The vehicles have been scaled down a bit from von Braun’s conceptual designs, and a schedule for the Mars mission is still not set, but the plan is intact and as sound as ever.”

Soundly expensive. The International Space Station (ISS) is the most high-priced object ever constructed with cost estimates ranging from $35 billion to $160 billion. The ISS has been routinely criticized for its exorbitant expense and failed experiments, especially after the cancellation of the ambitious Centrifuge Accommodations Module. The cherished goal of mastering fusion on ISS has never materialized and most of the experiments requiring weightlessness could be done far cheaper in so-called “vomit comets” which are aircraft that can briefly provide a nearly weightless environment.

Ironically, the space station is already testing the effects of cosmic radiation on ISS astronauts wearing special ionization detection helmets that would appear to obviate the need to nuke the monkeys.

The Italian experiment began last summer and is described on the NASA website:

“Anomalous Long Term Effects in Astronauts’ Central Nervous System (ALTEA) integrates several diagnostic technologies to measure the effect of the exposure of crewmembers to cosmic radiation. It will improve the understanding of the impacts that radiation has on the human central nervous system functions, and will study the flashes from cosmic radiation that astronauts have reported since the Apollo flights.”

Instead of shooting up monkeys with radionuclides approximating some contrived correlation between large intravenous doses versus months of external cosmic radiation exposure, the Italians are cutting straight to the chase.

“ALTEA will measure the particle flux in the U.S. Lab on the International Space Station (ISS), being 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 Italian Space Agency’s experiment, launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket to ISS, will use an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure the brain activity of crewmembers to determine if gamma radiation causes changes in the electrophysiology of the brain in real time.

“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 NASA. “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 are two major differences between the Italian and American experiments: the Italians are studying the actual animals that tests are meant for – humans, not monkeys.

It also won’t cost $1.75 million taxpayer dollars, and the lives of up to 28 squirrel monkeys zapped by gamma radiation, to read the results. NASA may have to buy an English-Italian dictionary but that pretty much covers it.

It certainly won’t be as easy as translating another country’s experiment to figure out how hot it gets in space. President Obama will have to overcome Congressional pressure to continue a costly and scientifically dubious manned space program. That will be no easy mission to accomplish.

The American people, however, may prove pivotal in pressuring their legislators to support a robust robotic space exploration that would benefit tremendously from the dollars freed up by deep-sixing Constellation. Some, like Southwick, would certainly be satisfied if NASA finally jettisoned the remnants of its Nazi past.

Inhumane primate experiments and the exorbitant and expensive dreams of human space conquest may disappear into a stellar black hole like that created by the gravitational collapse of a massive dying star. Like the resultant supernova explosion that accompanies such a collapse, NASA’s robotic space program could then burst out with renewed brilliance.

It would be one small step for monkeys, one giant leap for robots.

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