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.
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.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UConn Huskies College Football
TicketsThu., Sep. 29, 11:00am
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
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."
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.
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.
Brookhaven National Laboratory would only provide the Houston Press with pre-released statements. McLean Hospital handled the request for comment the same way — with a press release.
In a September 15, 2010 statement, Brookhaven said the experiment is "pending based on the outcome of high-level discussions between the Department of Energy and NASA." After the one-time exposure, "the monkeys would then live out the remainder of their natural lifetime at McLean Hospital ... while being studied for subtle changes in behavior and performance." McLean's statement added that the primates would be exposed to "very low levels of space radiation," and that the exposure "is not intended to produce sickness or physical damage that is associated with other types of radiation found on earth."
When the Press contacted the three parties about the tests, the response from Brookhaven and McLean was to talk to NASA; NASA said talk to Brookhaven or McLean.
The primate tests conducted by Dr. Barnes were done more than 40 years ago. When Bates heard about the proposed testing and Evans's decision to resign, he supported her. His thinking was, "We've already done this, we've got a big database of that type of data, why don't we just go back and look at it after 40 years of more knowledge and learning and experience and see what that data gives us?
"I have no problem with research," he continued," but I have a problem with doing duplicate research that has already been done, but maybe not clearly analyzed."
Bates first spoke out on a respected website, nasawatch.com, following a segment about Evans's resignation that aired on CNN.
Right now, NASA isn't saying much, mainly because the issue is "sensitive and classified," and because "the testing is still under review," according to Michael Braukus, a spokesman with NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
April Evans knows the eastern part of the state of Texas. Born April 21, 1978 at Christus Hospital-St. Elizabeth in Beaumont, she lived with her family for a brief stint in Vidor, followed by a similar period in Manvel, and then Lake Jackson. She stayed there from four years old up until she was 18, when she left for College Station. She still wears her faded, gold Aggie ring on the middle finger of her right hand.
When she was young, she had the frame to be a dancer or even a gymnast. Still does. Everyone in the family is tall, at least six-foot. Evans never exceeded 5 feet, 2 inches. "I think I must have been denied milk as a child," she jokes.
With brown shoulder-length hair, a petite frame and a quick smile, she's often identified as someone much younger than she is. "That's great, except when you're trying to be taken seriously by the head people at NASA," Evans says.
Her parents, Joe and Tanja, divorced when Evans was four. After the divorce, most of the parenting duties fell on Evans's grandparents, Drayton and Polly. Evans took ballet but was somewhat of a tomboy. She enjoyed paging through her grandfather's old National Geographic magazines and looking through books in his small library, most having to do with space flight. "He had the space bug," Evans recalls.
The space bug bit her early, too. She remembers watching the space shuttle launches while sitting in her grandfather's lap. It was the only time she ever saw the man with big bones and big hands with tears in his eyes. She drew from those experiences "a sense of reverence, a very high regard for the symbolism of the space exploration program and what that means in the bigger picture of humanity."
While most kids grew up wanting to know where babies came from or why the sky was blue, Evans was asking different questions: What's behind this wall? Why do you need insulation? Why do you need electrical wiring? The questions were directed toward her grandfather while he was in the process of adding on to their "itty-bitty house in Lake Jackson" and turning it into a five-bedroom, two-story home.
A machinist at McGill Maintenance, Evans's grandfather was good with his hands. She credits him with her interest in engineering and space. From ages four through 10, "PawPaw" was the most influential person in her life. He passed away when she was still young.
Neither of Evans's parents graduated from high school. Her mom was a "homemaker," and dad was in sales and liked to spend time on his 137 acres in East Texas. She was the first in her family to attend college. Her parents were proud. She chose Texas A&M. Her parents were concerned about the size and cost. She decided to study aerospace engineering. Her parents were supportive, but worried she was overexerting herself. She paid for her education with student loans. Dad worried she might flunk out and be stuck with debt.
That didn't happen.
By her senior year, Evans was certain that graduate school was next. She'd spent the previous two summers working as a research assistant, and had already spoken with professors and advisers about grad programs. That is, until networking and a bit of good fortune intervened.
During her senior year, Evans talked four fellow members of the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) into making the 120-mile commute, on a weekday, to Johnson Space Center for a speaking engagement. When the chairman of AIAA found out that a student group had driven all that way for the event, he made it a point to introduce himself.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
After years of living and socializing in Montrose, Evans's life is scattered in boxes in a small house that she shares with her mom in Manvel. Between paying for improvements to her hurricane-ravaged home – which would ultimately be condemned — and helping pay for her mom's chemo treatments, the money she'd managed to save from nine years of a six-figure salary was gone. Since she chose to resign her position from NASA, there are no unemployment checks coming.
She can barely make the payments on her Toyota Prius.
"Sometimes I wonder if I've made the right decision," says Evans, her voice fluttering and tears forming in the corner of her eyes. "I never wanted all of this to happen. I tried really hard to keep everything inside, but [NASA] wouldn't ..." She trails off, the thought uncompleted.
She's been working on her resume, intending to start job-hunting soon, with hopes of employment by Christmas. The European Space Agency did contact her, offering her a list of job possibilities in various countries. Evans said thanks, but no thanks. At least for right now. "I'll probably take them up on it at some point," she says.
Evans wants to spend the next couple years near her mom and seeing through her intent for increased awareness and opposition to the primate tests. With the help of ADI, she put together a robo-call that went out to Brookhaven employees and a video piece that was sent to members of Congress.
This past weekend she returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. She delivered a 10-minute speech in the Capitol building to an audience of 35 people, comprised of members of Congress, congressional staffers and animal rights people. It was the last day before Congress adjourned for the year. It was also the day Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.
Evans also had the opportunity to speak with various Republican members of Congress privately. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine hoped Evans's Texan roots and hunting background would sway a few into listening to what she had to say.
It was a positive experience overall. She got to share the thoughts she wanted to discuss with NASA all those months ago. As an engineer, she's long believed that there were alternatives that should at least be considered before resorting to animal testing. For example, radiation shielding.
In his speech on April 15, 2010 — when the NASA and JSC landscape shifted and 5,000 job cuts resulted — President Obama said, "After decades of neglect, we will increase investment right away in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster and for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely. That means tackling major scientific and technological challenges. How do we shield astronauts from radiation on longer missions?"
When Evans was encountering all of the bureaucratic difficulty within NASA, her main goal was simply to start a conversation. A conversation that she hoped, with all the great minds within the agency, would lead to some other alternative than sacrificing more intelligent life. That conversation may finally be happening. All she had to do was radically alter the course of her life to get people to listen.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.