Intelligent Life

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

Animals often served as test subjects as humans tried to get a grasp of what to expect in space and how best to respond to its challenges. On June 11, 1948, a rhesus macaque monkey named Albert was launched into space aboard a V2 rocket from a base in New Mexico. Albert suffocated and died during the journey.

Albert IV survived his space flight in 1949, but died when his rocket landed. Over the years, NASA has also experimented with sending mice, fish and snails into space — species NASA calls "the lowest form of life."

In 1957, the Russians sent Laika, a stray dog, into space. Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth, but also the first orbital death. Unfortunately for Laika, she had been handed a one-way ticket — the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed; and there had never been an expectation of survival.

At her NASA going-away party, her first- and second-level managers from Boeing and NASA came to see her off. She clearly didn't look the aerospace engineer part.
Courtesy of April Evans 
At her NASA going-away party, her first- and second-level managers from Boeing and NASA came to see her off. She clearly didn't look the aerospace engineer part.
Days and nights at the bedside of her mother (left) following chemotherapy treatments helped shape ­Evans's views on radiation.
Courtesy of April Evans
Days and nights at the bedside of her mother (left) following chemotherapy treatments helped shape ­Evans's views on radiation.

The idea, of course, is that it's better that an animal die rather than a human in the pursuit of knowledge of the universe.

Most of what NASA deemed "necessary sacrifices" occurred decades ago. After years without any known NASA animal testing, the U.S. space agency is considering resuming tests on animals; in October 2009 it selected a research experiment proposed by Dr. Jack Bergman as a possibility. A behavior pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital, Dr. Bergman has done research studies on the medical strategies for beating drug addiction, including methamphetamines, cocaine and cannabis. He's been using primates as his test subjects for nearly 15 years.

Of course, as Dr. Barnes demonstrated, animals don't have to be sent into space; research can sometimes be as easily done on the ground. Which is where the current proposed tests would take place.

Some time in the coming decades, a manned spaceship will head to Mars. It may be American or Russian or some agency out of Asia. The race is on to be the first. Figuring out how best to protect astronauts from excess exposure to high-energy cosmic rays and other (possibly unknown) ionizing radiation is one of the biggest challenges.

Best estimates put a flight to Mars at five months each way. Tack on however much time a crew spends in orbit or on the surface and a Mars mission would likely take well over a year.

Humans have spent prolonged periods in space. The American record holder, Michael López-Alegría, spent 215 days aboard the International Space Station. But ISS is "within the fuzz," as Evans explains it. The peach fuzz analogy: If the Earth were a peach, the ISS would be within the fuzz, or within the Earth's magnetic field — meaning not deep in space and susceptible to harmful cosmic rays.

According to the documents for the proposed tests, NASA aims "to evaluate the neurobehavioral and neuropharmacological effects of different types of ionizing radiation encountered during deep space travel." Meaning, after X amount of time, however many months or years into the mission, and all that exposure to varying levels of radiation, will a crew still be able to do what it's supposed to do out there?

Which is supposedly why these tests have been proposed — understanding and being able to prepare for extended exposure to radiation for deep space travel. Not how to protect against it, just how to deal with it. But there isn't much known about the $1.75 million primate tests because no one familiar with them is willing or able to talk. All there is to go by are 13 pages of test procedure.

There are to be 36 squirrel monkeys included in the test. Twenty-four will undergo radiation exposure. Six will serve as controls. And six will serve as alternates, in the event that something happens to one of the initial 30. The 24 will undergo a single dosage of radiation, which is supposed to simulate the amount of radiation a crew would be exposed to in deep space travel.

Following the irradiation process at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., the primates will be transported to McLean Hospital, a Harvard University Medical School facility in Belmont, Mass., where they will be observed and tested for up to four years. Daily testing would take place in a "specifically constructed ventilated, sound-attenuating chamber" where the primates would be "seated in a customized Lexan chair." From there, details vary based on the specific tests. In between testing, the "monkeys will be housed in stainless steel cages in a climate-controlled vivarium." The thought is that if the primates respond well to the experiments, it could be assumed that humans would do the same.

The details of the tests lead to questions. Questions that no one is willing to answer publicly at any rate. How does a single dosage equal months of prolonged exposure? How do the tests account for things like solar flares or other unexpected occurrences? Where do the experimental primates come from? What, if any, harm is expected? 

The documents claim that, "To our knowledge, long-term effects of ionizing radiation on the [Central Nervous System] functioning of nonhuman primates have not been examined previously." NASA refused to discuss prior testing, neither confirming nor denying whether the Apollo-era testing applied.

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