Intelligent Life

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

Turned out the chairman, Jorge Molina, worked for Boeing and was a member of the Vehicle Integrated Performance Environments and Resources (VIPER) team, working with NASA. When the group informed him that Evans had been the one to orchestrate the trip, he gave her his card and insisted she send over her resume. He was supposed to help circulate the resume, but was so impressed by her that he brought her in to interview at Boeing. She did, and was hired. Fresh out of college, she was to be working with the VIPER team on vehicles intended to go into space.

Six years later, in early 2007, after the contract for the Crew Exploration Vehicle — which would later be known as the Orion vehicle, and would replace the space shuttle — went to Lockheed Martin, Boeing's primary competitor in space-age technology, Evans got a phone call. It was NASA. "They asked if I had any interest in working with NASA," Evans recalls. "Hell yes!"

Evans would say later that she did have some initial apprehension due to a post-9/11 Homeland Security directive that instituted universal access cards. According to Evans, NASA took this newfound power to the extreme, requiring its employees to grant the agency access to personal information (including bank statements and mental health records) in order to obtain the necessary access cards.

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."

But this was NASA calling. An aerospace engineer doesn't say no to a chance to join NASA.

The following years would be exciting and taxing. At 29 years old, Evans was one of the youngest people to join NASA. She worked long hours on projects that she believed in, resulting in one Thanksgiving spent in Mission Control. She worked in the same building at JSC as the astronauts. "I'd ride the elevator with them sometimes, they were on the top floor," which helped to "humanize" them. She saw, first-hand, the lives she was responsible for while working on the International Space Station.

While her working life offered fulfillment and new, welcome challenges, her personal life was rife with trying events.

On Sept. 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall and ravaged her townhouse in the Montrose area, tearing away her roof, sending water through the walls and light fixtures. "I remember opening the door to the attic and seeing the stars and it was raining down on me," Evans says. She tried to put out pots and pans, even though she knew her efforts were futile. Friends and volunteers from NASA came in the days that followed to try to help. FEMA wouldn't do anything because she had insurance, but that wasn't enough to cover the repairs.

Less than a year later, on April 19, 2009, doctors discovered that Evans's mom had multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. She's had six rounds of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants at MD Anderson Cancer Center in the past 17 months. Despite all the treatment, her doctors have said the best-case scenario is three to five years. Evans spent many nights sitting bedside with her mom, often with a mask over her mouth since her mom's immune system had been weakened.

Seeing what her mother went through is part of why she sympathizes with the primates scheduled to undergo radiation testing.

"Radiation is good at killing things," Evans says.
_____________________

"Like I told NASA headquarters, the internal system of driving change at NASA is broken," Evans says, "but it's not really broken because it never existed to begin with."

After nearly a month of trying to negotiate through layers of NASA bureaucracy, aiming to find some means to file a complaint or be heard, all that Evans had to show for her time was a yellow sticky note. Her second manager had written it, taking notes while on the phone with HR. The gist: have a problem with the proposed primate testing? As a civil servant, talk to a union or a congressman.

After hearing word of the protest and testing, she sent the initial email to her first- and second-level managers, seeking a means to file a complaint. They proceeded to pass her concern along to Human Resources. HR reviewed the e-mail and decided she needed to be speaking with the NASA legal department, citing the Hatch Act.

"When they came back with the Hatch Act compliancy, I was very fearful of how open they were going to be to my ideas, because they made it very clear from the beginning that they thought this was a political issue," Evans recalls. The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, is a federal law that prevents federal employees, or civil servants, from engaging in partisan political activity.

Shocked by the response, Evans requested a second opinion. Her case was passed to the Department of Equal Opportunity & Diversity, who agreed that there was no avenue for a complaint about the testing, and that the complaint did appear politically driven.

"This wasn't a political issue, if anything, it was a social issue," Evans says.

These developments didn't stop Evans in her pursuit to be heard. She managed to schedule a sit-down meeting with Michael Pratt, a member of the legal department at JSC. Early in the discussion, Evans realized the meeting wouldn't be gathering the results she'd hoped.

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