Intelligent Life

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

"He was polite, but cold," Evans says. "I could tell he was forcing being nice to me, that he was annoyed that he even had to speak with me."

She asked for the test dates and access to the test plans, which he refused, saying he didn't have the information. He almost immediately contradicted himself, she said, when he acknowledged having regular teleconferences with NASA headquarters about the tests. Frustrated, Evans asked whom the best person would be to talk to about this, and she claims Pratt told her that animal discrimination was not an issue worth discussing and "that if I continued asking questions I would be putting my job in jeopardy." Pratt declined to talk to the Press for this story.

That day, Evans went home and began writing her letter of resignation.

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."

On March 15, 2010 she delivered the letter, addressing it to William Spetch, her first-level manager. She talked about how working for NASA was a "childhood dream" and that she was aware of decades-old prior experiments that sent monkeys into space, to which she felt "envy of their rare first views of our world." But in hearing about NASA's endorsement of experiments on non-human primates in 2010, she could not "in good conscience work for NASA. Working for NASA in the 21st century's scientific culture, this is not a decision I ever expected to have to make, and it leaves me with acute sorrow."

When she informed her other manager of her decision by e-mail, the first line of his response read: "April please don't go." The e-mail went on, "We all need you...don't let this break your spirit...NASA and more significantly me are closer to perfect because of you..." Interestingly, this same manager had an Albert Einstein quote in his e-mail signature: "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them."

From April 8 through April 22, Evans helped train the individual who would fill her position. Aside from that, she kept quiet and to herself. She hung a photo of a squirrel monkey in her cubicle, as a sort of silent protest.

Evans's resignation garnered headlines. When PETA found out about her decision, its representatives immediately tried to contact her. They seemed to have found their next spokeswoman. But Evans refused. She was too concerned with figuring out whether she'd made the right decision and whether she was really the only person who cared.

The European Space Agency had an answer, just a week later. In a letter to Animal Defenders International (ADI), Jean-Jacques Dordain, the acting director general of the ESA, wrote, "there is absolutely no research interest or planning for experiments with primates."

NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden had a response to Dordain's announcement. Attending the California Institute of Technology graduation to deliver the commencement speech, he told Pasadena Weekly that experimentation by NASA is "very strongly peer-reviewed" and that the particular tests are "very humane."

In a letter to ADI, dated June 28, 2010, retired Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev also publicly opposed the tests. Lebedev once held the world record for the longest single spaceflight, along with a fellow Russian cosmonaut. Lebedev noted the tests were unnecessary because "the existing knowledge received from past experience of long time space flights is quite enough right now to predict their influence on people even regarding radiation issues."

Weeks later, Paul McCartney, an outspoken supporter of NASA and future space flight, wrote Bolden to express his disapproval: "I believe NASA has the ingenuity to investigate the health effects of space travel without confining and experimenting on animals as was done in the old days. It would be terribly disappointing if in our zeal to explore new frontiers and to learn about the fascinating universe where we live we began to regress in our treatment of the animals with whom we share this planet. May I appeal to you to cancel this experiment?"

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine expressed similar concerns. PCRM referred to the tests as "piling bad science on top of bad science," claiming that the initial decades-old primate research failed to produce any data that applies to humans. Members of the physicians group also pointed out that the research would violate NASA's stated principles regarding animal ethics. The policy says that "the minimization of distress, pain and suffering is a moral imperative" and makes the point that any research or experiments should be done after weighing the abuse or burden of non-human subjects against the potential benefits.

With a reaffirmed faith in her decision, Evans has pressed on. She agreed to a segment with CNN, which was organized by Animal Defenders International. Though the host, Jane Velez-Mitchell, never spoke directly with Evans, she led the segment by referring to Evans as a "furious top NASA employee," and included interviews with members of PETA. Evans had never worked with PETA, but an association was made. She went from scientist to activist in the span of the four-minute segment.

"I've never wanted to make this me against NASA, I love NASA," Evans says. "I just wanted them to show the scientific justification for why they're supporting these tests."

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