To many people, the image of a monkey's face peering out from an astronaut's helmet is comically absurd and more suitable for the cover of MAD magazine than any reputable academic journal or serious government publication. To others, pictures of terrified monkeys and chimpanzees strapped into spaceships are tragic artifacts of a less enlightened time.
But just when we think that we've left science fiction behind, it sneaks up from behind and bites us.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is no longer going to the bizarre lengths of actually sending monkeys into space, it is currently planning to fund another cruel and pointless experiment on this planet. The agency has announced that it will spend $1.75 million to fund an experiment in which up to 30 squirrel monkeys will be exposed to dangerous levels of space radiation.
If the experiment, which was submitted to NASA by Harvard animal experimenter Jack Bergman, moves forward, monkeys at New York's Brookhaven National Laboratory will be blasted with a single harmful dose of radiation that is intended to crudely re-create the long-term exposure that astronauts may experience during extended trips to deep space. The monkeys would then be transported to Harvard's McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where the devastating physical and mental effects of this irradiation would be assessed by restraining the monkeys for behavioral tests each week, Monday through Friday, for at least four years.
Never mind that many decades of such studies--ended in the 1990s--were found to be unreliable and ineffective, showing scientists that monkeys aren't good proxies for humans in space radiation studies. And never mind that the biological effects of a single, large dose of radiation aren't comparable to the continuous, low-level exposure that astronauts experience during long missions in space. Apparently, NASA has extra cash--our tax dollars--to throw away.
For the monkeys, this is likely to mean brain tumors, blindness, brain damage, premature aging, skin damage, and even premature death. But the physical ailments, as bad as they are likely to be, are only part of the problem. In their natural rainforest homes, squirrel monkeys live in large social groups with as many as 500 members and traverse miles of treetops in a single day. They can live for up to 20 years.
At McLean Hospital, the monkeys will be housed singly in steel cages, isolated from their peers, and will struggle to cope with severe physical and mental distress that will ultimately cut their lives short. Nearly 90 percent of monkeys who are caged alone in laboratories show signs of severe psychological trauma such as frantic cage-circling, hair-pulling and self-mutilation. These symptoms are exacerbated by the frequency with which the monkeys will be ripped from their cages and forced to perform in experiments.
When PETA first learned of this study, we suspected that its ethical and scientific merits hadn't been thoroughly considered. Now we've obtained documents that have confirmed our suspicions. NASA has apparently violated its own grant guidelines and the Code of Federal Regulations by agreeing to fund the controversial experiment before the animal experimentation oversight committee at Brookhaven National Laboratory had even assessed the ethical and scientific merits, as is required. When it eventually did approve the project--long after the funding was announced and other crucial deadlines had passed--the Brookhaven committee did so without any information about the study's relevance to human health, its likely harm to the animals involved and other fundamental details. By NASA's own standards, it appears that this experiment should have been disqualified from consideration.
We expected better from an agency that is responsible for the dazzling images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. These images reveal so much about our place in the universe. They demand a certain degree of modesty on our part. Humans are but one species on one planet in a universe that is inconceivably large. Those who lead NASA and our nation in space exploration know this better than anyone. Yet they have agreed to take part in the callous bullying of animals with whom we share this planet--to take them from their homes, lock them in cages and conduct experiments on them that cause severe physical and mental trauma. It would seem they haven't learned the most important lesson that the universe offers.
Ian Smith is a research associate in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) Laboratory Investigations Department, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.peta.org/nasa.