If NASA ever wants to send astronauts on long-term space flights, it needs to know how radiation will affect the crew. Testing humans obviously isn’t going to happen, so NASA is funding a round of experiments to study how radiation effects monkeys, the first time monkeys have been used as test subjects by NASA in decades. The point of the experiments is to understand how the harsh radioactive environment of space affects human bodies and behavior and what countermeasures can be developed to make long-duration spaceflight safe for travelers beyond Earth’s protective magnetic shield [Discovery News]. The monkey studies will advance previous radiation experiments with rats and mice and will focus on how radiation affects the monkeys’ central nervous system.
Researchers will expose 18 to 28 squirrel monkeys with a small dose of radiation, similar to what astronauts would receive on a round trip flight to Mars. The monkeys, previously trained to perform a variety of tasks, will be tested to see how the exposure affects their performance [Telegraph] at different times after exposure to gamma rays. The monkeys will not be killed during the experiments, and after testing staff and veterinarians will look after them for the rest of their lives at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in Boston.
As you might expect, the experiment’s funding announcement is causing a stir among animal rights groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PCRM sent an appeal to NASA urging them to halt the experiments, which they are branding as “one giant leap backward for NASA.” They are also arguing that the research is “cruel” since it violates NASA’s own guidelines for animal treatment and that it’s “unnecessary” since long-term spaceflight still seems like a pipe dream. NASA’s animal testing policy, established in 1996, asserts that “the minimization of distress, pain and suffering is a moral imperative” and emphasizes that experimenters must weigh the burdens of animal subjects against potential societal benefits [Scientific American].
In response to the criticism, NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden restated the agency’s commitment to deep space travel and the necessity of radiation testing. Jack Bergman, who will lead the research, said “there’s a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts,” Bergman said. “That’s not been well assessed” [Discovery News]. Bergman will conduct the experiments at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.
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Image: flickr / suneko