Intelligent Life

When NASA employee April Evans questioned animal experiments, her career fell apart.

All April Evans wanted was peace of mind when she took hold of the microphone that afternoon, February 2, 2010.

It was a Tuesday at NASA's Johnson Space Center. An e-mail had been sent that morning, announcing three all-hands meetings that afternoon. These were optional and typically Evans skipped them, but this one carried higher stakes.

The numbers were out on NASA's portion of President Barack Obama's 2011 budget and the agency-wide impact was startling. The space program was to go in a new direction and as a result, nearly 5,000 jobs within NASA were to be cut.

April Evans posted this photo of a squirrel monkey behind her desk at work in silent protest.
Chasen Marshall
April Evans posted this photo of a squirrel monkey behind her desk at work in silent protest.
As an aerospace engineer at NASA, Evans felt "close" to her projects. On the screen behind her, an unmanned vehicle makes its final approach to the International Space Station — a project she saw from "cradle to grave."
Courtesy of April Evans
As an aerospace engineer at NASA, Evans felt "close" to her projects. On the screen behind her, an unmanned vehicle makes its final approach to the International Space Station — a project she saw from "cradle to grave."

Hers was safe; Evans already knew this. Rumors had spread. The Constellation Program and the Space Shuttle Program were scheduled to go. An aerospace engineer working on the International Space Station, Evans knew her project was to now be the primary focus at JSC. What's more, funding would be increasing. The other two meetings were to be emotional, with questions of job security.

The 32-year-old Evans had a more pressing issue on her mind. Five days prior, she had overhead co-workers returning from lunch complain about traffic at the corner of Bay Area Boulevard and Space Center Boulevard, caused by a protest. She asked her then-boyfriend, who worked in a building near the location, to stop by and find out what it was about. He brought her a handout and told her about the scene: People dressed in monkey costumes in metal cages, staged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"I thought these sorts of tests were part of NASA's past," Evans recalls thinking. "I was shocked."

That afternoon she contacted her managers to find out how to file a complaint, and that's where the trouble began. Within days her request for information would pass through Human Resources, NASA's legal department, the Department of Equal Opportunity & Diversity, and back to the legal department, where it would be suddenly halted. No one seemed able to answer her questions and no one seemed to share her frustration. And Evans claims her job was threatened.

"It was pretty clear that there was no due process for filing a complaint about this," Evans says, five months later. "If it was sexual abuse or something, that would have gone through, but animal testing, nothing."

Kelly Humphries, a NASA public affairs representative, puts it a different way: "There is no process for a moral objection to something going on in the agency outside an individual's workplace."

And that's how Evans arrived at this moment, with a microphone in her hand, nearly 150 colleagues listening, asking a question of Michael Suffredini, manager of the International Space Station.

"As you may know, there was an animal rights protest near here last week, and they're protesting primate tests, and I just want to know your thoughts on that," Evans recalls saying.

Seconds into Suffredini's response, Evans realized he had misunderstood her. He was giving his thoughts on if and why NASA would again send a primate into space aboard a shuttle. Evans got the feeling that Suffredini didn't know about the tests either. Realizing this and not wanting to miss her opportunity to pose her question in a public forum, after days of frustration at not being able to be heard, she took the microphone once again. She knew asking a follow-up question would be bold, but she was determined to get his opinion, and to double-check that he didn't know about the experiments.

So she continued: "I'm really sorry to have a follow-up question, I just would like to clarify, this is to do with ground testing of radiation levels that we're going to see in space exploration, not what we currently expose the crew to."

Evans recalls Suffredini seeming flustered and annoyed. He brought his finger to his lip and said, "Um, I'll get back to you. I think that's how they told me to answer questions like that."

"I might as well have said PETA three times," Evans says of Suffredini's response. "I mean, he just embarrassed me in front of most of the ISS employees and the three managers that are between him and I."

Had that interaction gone differently, Evans believes she would still be working at NASA.

Instead, five months later she is broke and unemployed after resigning her dream job. She's been misidentified as a PETA activist. And branded as someone filled with anger about the agency she loves.

Jim Bates was there in the '60s when NASA was in its infancy and when Dr. Charles Barnes, a renowned veterinarian, walked into NASA with his "big fat briefcase" and pulled out charts and graphs and images of healthy chimpanzees and the corresponding results from varying dosages of radiation.

"It kind of made you nauseated," says Bates, who retired from NASA in 2004. "But you found out, he's already done this, [the primates are] already dead or gone, so let's see what the studies show." From 1968 to 1970, Bates served as the co-chairman of the JSC Space Radiation Environment Group.

Those were the days of "blatant experimentation," as Bates puts it. When he was hired by the agency in 1962, "we were a young bunch of guys and what we were doing hadn't been done before, so you didn't have any rulebooks or any textbooks to guide you on everything," he says. "We kind of learned as we went. You couldn't go to school to study aerospace technology; there wasn't any."

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