WASHINGTON- A man in an astronaut suit stood outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Thursday morning.
Normal enough,given the contents of the building before him. But he was not promoting an exhibit,nor was he affiliated with the museum. He and a group of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals activists were brandishing signs and distributing pamphlets protesting a NASA program.
NASA is planning to radiate squirrel monkeys. NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma said the agency will use $1.75 million to expose up to 18 male squirrel monkeys to a dose of radiation to learn about the potential long-term effects of radiation in space,hoping to use the information to plan human travel to Mars.
Is it worth it?
Hautaluoma said animal care committees reviewed the experiment and found it acceptable.
“We are following an extensive number of federal guideline for care and use,” Hautaluoma said.
“Animals will be monitored and receive high quality veterinary care for their lifespan.”
Hautaluoma said humans and monkeys are so similar that the experiment is likely to produce a lot of relevant data.
“There have been similar radiation studies done with mice and rats,” Hautaluoma said. “But the direct application to the human nervous system is not as strong as it is with monkeys.”
Hautaluoma said scientists and researchers have decided that the experiment is credible and the data will be useful.
“It's to understand more about how space radiation affects the central nervous systems of humans,” he said.
NASA hopes the research will be a valuable tool in designing a method to allow humans to travel to Mars.
The radiation given to the monkeys will be “equivalent to what humans would get if they traveled to Mars,” Hautaluoma said.
“We are currently evaluating what our goals are going to be.”
Going to Mars will take a long time,so NASA needs to run long-term experiments like this one.
“We need to have that long lead time to get that data,” Hautaluoma said.
Animal Rights Groups' Side:
Kathleen Conlee,director of program management for animal research at the Humane Society,worked with monkeys used in radiation experiments. She said the effects on the animals were devastating.
“Their teeth fell out. They self-mutilated,” she said.
Conlee said NASA is disregarding its own guidelines. Humane Society Executive Vice President Andrew Rowan “chaired a committee that was convened by NASA itself,” Conlee said. “And they came out with a report on animal use. This use goes against many of the principles in that report.”
PETA believes the experiment is not just harmful but useless.
The monkeys will receive vastly different quantities of radiation than humans would receive while traveling through space,Justin Goodman,research supervisor at PETA and a protester said.
“The current experiment that's being planned is going to expose monkeys to one massive dose of radiation,” Goodman said.
“When humans go into space,they're going to be exposed to a low level of radiation.”
Conlee said other primates often don't react as humans do.
“Just because you're using a primate doesn't mean that you're going to get the results a human would,” Conlee said.
Conlee said that similar experiments have already been conducted on many animals,including primates.
“There have been literally hundreds of government funded radiation experiments since the '50s,” she said. “This data is already out there.”
The experiment is costly,and since NASA is a government agency,the money will come from taxpayers.
“NASA's about to squander $2 million of public tax money on these experiments,” Goodman said.
“We're hoping to urge NASA to ground this misguided plan.”