NASA's monkey troubles
Bolden defends primate radiation in space travel tests while European counterpart sees no need for it
As his European counterpart was criticizing testing on monkeys to simulate the effects of space travel, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden defended radiation testing on those animals, saying it is both important to the future of manned space flight and is conducted in a “very humane” way.
“We want to be able to send humans to Mars and places beyond lower orbit,” Bolden said soon after giving the commencement speech Friday at Caltech, which along with NASA manages Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Off campus on South Hill Avenue, just prior to the graduation ceremony, eight members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, staged a peaceful protest against a $1.75 million NASA program, in which 18 squirrel monkeys are being injected with gamma radiation in an effort to determine human ability to withstand high levels of radiation in space.
“One of the many things we do not have complete knowledge about right now is the effects of radiation on humans,” said Bolden, a former US Marine and astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions, two as commander. “As a general rule, what NASA does in very strongly peer-reviewed experimentation is we use animals to expose them to the environment that we think humans are going to face, and so that is the purpose of [the experimentation].”
Also on Friday, businesswire.com reported that the director of the European Space Agency, which is currently working with Russia on a 520-day simulation of conditions of confinement and isolation humans would face on a mission to Mars, wrote in a letter to the group Animal Defenders International (ADI) that he doesn’t see the need for testing on monkeys.
The letter from Jacques Dordain to ADI states that the ESA “declines any interest in monkey research and does not consider any need or use for such result,” according to the wire, which points out is “an indirect yet unambiguous criticism of NASA’s plans to use non-human primates in radiation experiments.”
Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s vice president of laboratory investigations, said in a prepared statement that “the ESA’s position reinforces PETA’s view that radiation experiments on animals are cruel and archaic. Modern, non-animal test methods exist and are more relevant to human astronauts.”
PETA’s Amanda Fortino said the organization has been dogging Bolden for months over the issue, yet she said he has never publicly responded to the complaints, until now. During Friday’s protest, Fortino was joined by 25-year-old Meggan Anderson of Los Angeles, who dressed up in a mock space suit as she carried a sign denouncing the experiments and waved to passersby, many of whom honked in approval.
In a story that appeared in February in the Pasadena Weekly, investigative reporter Michael Collins wrote that the National Research Council in 2008 warned 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.”
Furthermore, Collins reported, that “To be totally effective against both galactic cosmic rays and higher energy waves, any known shielding would weigh hundreds of metric tons. … Irradiating 18 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,” Collins wrote. “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.”
PETA members are being urged to call NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver “and very politely [the nicer you are when you call the better it is for monkeys] ask her to scrap the proposal to fund radiation experiments on monkeys,” according to the organization’s Web site.
Fortino said the monkeys used for testing are forced to live in barren cages where they will undergo a host of experiments to determine how space radiation affects both their bodies and minds. Other monkeys that have been used in NASA’s space tests have experienced brain cancer and tumors and have lived painful lives, she said.
“If NASA really wanted to find out how space radiation affects humans, they should study humans that have been to space, employ modern research techniques like human cell cultures … and then find out how that radiation affects humans’, not monkeys’ biology,” Fortino said.
“Studying monkeys to see how humans are going to react to space radiation doesn’t make sense. Humans and monkeys don’t have the same biology. There have been numerous tests done on animals that when done on humans don’t show the same result. So if NASA really wants to protect their astronauts and to study how they’re going to be affected by the space radiation, they should … use robotics or study humans who have been to space already,” she said.
Bolden said all NASA research in this field is strongly peer reviewed. “So everything that we do has gone through research associates, people who look at things that we need to do, and I think [the experiments] are very humane. So I just disagree with them [PETA],” he said.
To read more about this issue, visit pasadenaweekly.com/cms/story/detail/space_monkey_business/8464/
and pasadenaweekly.com/cms/story/detail/we_robot/8493/. Contact NASA’s Garver at  358-1020.