NASA's Plan to Irradiate Monkeys Raises Cruelty Concerns

By Brett Israel | November 10, 2009 10:30 am

squirrel-monkeyIf 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.

Related Content:
80beats: Presidential Panel: Space Travel Plans Are Broken
80beats: The Real Problem With a Human Trip to Mars: Radiation
80beats: Would A Mission to Mars Drive Astronauts Insane? Six Earth-Bound Volunteers Aim to Find Out.

Image: flickr / suneko

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World, Space
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  • kicki

    i dont know how one can do so, to make other sick and killed
    do it on your selfs

  • AJ

    idk this is a tough one..we NEED to know what happns w.this much radiation b4 we subject humans to it. its either the monkeys or one of us. i cant see any other way out of it. id go thru w/ it, but only because its absolutely necessary. its worth it to harm a few animals in order to save a human life.

  • peta

    I agree with AJ. Animals don’t have rights.

  • addicted to bad

    Why exactly is doing the experiment on rats not viable?

  • Sarah

    “Animals don’t have rights”. Well, that’s true enough. It’s interesting that this ideology is used in order to justify inflicting pain and inducing sickness in an animal percieved to be much lower on the totem pole, and that same ideology is used to dehumanize people: women, “minorities”, people who hold to varying religions. It is borne of the same thought process.

    Although there are yet alternatives to using living animals, hopefully the goal of PCRM and PETA is to begin a dialogue and maintain a presence in society’s collective mind. Options may not currently be available, but pondering our moral dilemma may bring about other scientific advances that make it possible to use other means of testing. Examples of such leaps have been seen with computer progams which allow a student to learn through virtual dissections as opposed to those performed on once living animals (a bit less complex than testing for the effects of radiation in space on living tissue, but no one said the goal isn’t lofty!).

    I support scientific thought. I also support empathy.

  • Angela

    If these guys want to test the effects of irradiation on something then they should test it on themselves, not on defenseless creatures who have no right to say no and will undergo intolerable suffering.

  • Bystander

    I thought we were agreed that robots will be the first to space travel? Cheaper and easier in the long run isn’t it? They can take a variety of small animals with them and test the effects of the radiation on tissues then! 😉

    Ps: “The stupid.. it burns.”
    Pps: Whatever happened to engineering “super” astronauts that have radiation resistance?

  • bebop

    a mission to mars is so far in the future and the potential gains from such a mission is not worth mentioning. we should should not be even thinking about this type of experimentation at this point. it is cruel and inhumane to irradiate animals for data that wont be used for hundreds of years. let’s do the experiments when the data will be useful within 5 years.

  • Ryan

    I’m more in favor of robotic space exploration. However, PETA is and always has been out to lunch. It’s perfectly ethical to to perform experiments on these animals because its benefits will likely be both significants and unattainable through other means. This isn’t pulling the wings off of flies; this is expanding our base of knowledge.

  • The Mikeness

    @bebop: They’re planning on going to Mars WAY sooner than 100 years from now, don’t be ridiculous.

    They already said that the monkeys will not die as a result of the test, and so long as they do not live in agony thereafter I’m all for this in the name of science. If you’re truly against animal cruelty, take your fight to those who inflict cruelty on animals on a daily basis merely for profit – the food industry.

    Take your pick, inflicting some pain on animals, or the slow and painful death of every living creature on the planet within the next 100 years. Think fast!

  • amber15

    Ryan and Mike, why don’t you expand your base of intelligence and offer yourselves up for the experiment, I’m sure NASA can learn everything they need from such intelligent and compassionate humans such as yourself. Hurry along now, don’t let those dumb, ignorant animals beat you to it.
    Remember, the world needs you to SAVE us, ….hurry, Think Fast.

  • Cory

    @6. The key word to your entire post is “dehumanize”. You can dehumanize women and minorities, sure. Can you “dehumanize” a monkey?

  • Pat

    We may or may not send humans to Mars in the near future–there are certainly grounds to question whether a nation engaged in two wars and facing record deficits should be spending huge amounts of money on such a highly speculative project, and robots would be cheaper and safer. But there’s no question that these experiments, which will blast sentient, highly intelligent animals with radiation, are both elective and cruel. In addition to the effects of radiation, the monkeys involved will suffer various other experiments at the hands of a researcher who commonly uses thirst, hunger, and total-body restraints to train animals in his care. Anyone who believes that monkeys cannot think and feel pain and do not have some awareness of their fate is scientifically illiterate. Other individuals, no doubt, will be pleased to contemplate and justify the infliction of suffering on intelligent beings; those individuals will invoke all kinds of logical fallacies (including strawman arguments about this being a choice between these experiments and the complete extinction of life on earth). Such arguments are often made out of either self-interest or a pathological enjoyment of suffering. But many, many people are shocked that NASA is choosing to inflict suffering on sentient beings for such dubious, highly speculative ends.

  • Spike

    Who cares? It’s two damned monkeys. “Oh no! They won’t be able to freely throw their poop at each other!” Boo hoo. Grow up. Morons…

  • Alex

    It’s interesting that people in here think we as humans have the right to inflict pain on such an intelligent being, AND consider THAT moving forward lol. It’s NOT a ”tough one” as mentioned in a previous post, or for US to decide that ”it’s perfectly ethical because of the benefits” whose benefits? And please don’t be so dumb to suggest that the animals won’t experience agony, they know that they r in a cage, how would you like to be in a prison for life? not to mention the possible cancer which DOES CAUSE AGONY from the radiation, PLUS all the poking and prodding by these ”scientists”. Take your best shot ignorant people, you have NO leg to stand on!

  • Alex

    Hey Spike it’s obvious your mommy never loved you so you need to downplay the torture of other living beings, I would rather have a monkey for a friend than a ”human” such as yourself! What you are saying is ”who cares” well lots of people do. It’s not a matter of being ”grown up” , Being grown up equals respect for animals NOT the lack of it, I hope you weren’t or aren’t the type of kid that tortured animals for fun..we know where that ends up..anyone remember a naughty man named Jeffrey Dahmer?

    The universe is about 12 billion years old, and it’s been cool enough for life to have evolved for many hundreds of millions of years at least. Imagine being experimented on by ”higher beings”, we would be as simple as ants are to humans. Would they have the right to experiment on us?

  • Paula

    sounds like “Project X” all over

  • Erin

    With the advances in technology and the number of testing labs across the globe eliminating the use of animals due to inhumane testing and due to the fact that humans will not respond the same way as monkeys or any other living creature. It has been proven and published that animal testing does not parallel the same effects/results as it would on humans. So here again… innocent, living, breathing, feeling, beautiful creatures are subjected to unthinkable agony at a cost that cannot be truly realized or justified. This monkeys have done nothing to deserve their fate. And all you pro-animal testing advocates… why don’t you offer yourself up? You cry ‘why don’t the animal right advocates sacrifice our bodies?” Why aren’t you doing so. We are AGAINST animal testing or cruelty in any degree. You, on the other hand, say better them than us? Well how about taking a sample test yourself with minimal radiation and see how horrific the affects are. You say they’re animals and don’t count or have any rights. Who made you God? When did the fate of all living creatures get handed over to research laboratories? I think every person who supports animal testing should go visit any research lab across the country and watch and listen to the horror within those walls. Maybe if you saw the monkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, pigs… forcefully and neglectfully being cut, burned, sliced, poked, prodded, injected with toxins while they scurm, scream and cry in shear agony while REAL tears roll down their precious faces, you MIGHT have a clue. It must be monsters who have the stomach to inflict such harm and pain on any living creature. And once you witness this horror – then you try to support animal testing with a clear conscience… Hopefully those images and that experience will be burned into your mind forever, like the pain and horror that is these innocent animals live day in and day out. Animal testing is unacceptable, moreso since other viable methods are available, and should be stopped altogether and permanently.

  • http://What? Helen

    Gosh, I hope they don’t do this. It looks as if they are going to radiate them all at once with total exposure that would be incurred on a long human trip? How can that work? They can just ask me! I was treated with X-rays 18 times in 1965, for acne. Burns, cancer, osteoradionecrosis, dentures, multiple surgeries, pain, pain and pain.

    I can tell you that the brain gets very slow. The body gets so very very tired, This never goes away, it just gets worse with time. Calculations are difficult. Many days I can’t be trusted to balance a checkbook or pay the bills.

    I can decide that surely I will do this or that but I am not in charge. My radiated self is in charge, not me.

    Please don’t do this to them.

  • http://What? Helen

    I forgot to say – they will wish that you had killed them.

  • Julie

    Erin…I agree 100% with you and what you wrote brought me to tears. The capacity for such evil is unthinkable. I think anyone who could torture a living being should rot in hell forever.


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