NASA's Monkey Experiments: One Giant Leap Backward

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NASA's Monkey Experiments: One Giant Leap Backward

[Take action here: Stop the Use of Monkeys in NASA Space Radiation Studies]

From Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)
December 2009

NASA astronauts aboard space shuttle Atlantis tweeted from space for the first time last month. But just as NASA was making advances in social networking, it was setting its animal welfare policy back decades. The space agency announced plans to expose squirrel monkeys to radiation in an attempt to understand the effects of interplanetary travel. PCRM asked NASA to halt its plan.

In a federal petition to NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., PCRM asked him to halt the monkey experiments because they violate the NASA Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals, also known as the Sundowner Report. The space agency has not used monkeys for radiobiology research in decades. But prior NASA experiments involving monkeys have resulted in death for the animals involved.

“Irradiating monkeys would be one giant leap backward for NASA,” says Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H., PCRM’s director of research policy. “The proposed experiments are cruel, unnecessary, and lack scientific merit. There are better, more humane ways of understanding the potential dangers of interplanetary travel to humans. Scientific progress can only proceed with a strong ethical foundation.”

The experiments—proposed by researcher Jack Bergman of McLean Hospital in Boston—would involve irradiating monkeys and testing them to see how they perform on various tasks. Bergman has used squirrel monkeys for 15 years in addiction experiments, which have involved applying electric shocks, withholding food, and completely immobilizing the animals in restraint chairs for extended periods.

Radiation experiments involving nonhuman primates commonly involve restraint and other inhumane procedures. PCRM’s petition points out that Bergman’s radiation experiments will violate the standards of the Sundowner Report, a landmark 1996 NASA document that requires researchers to respect living creatures and to consider the full range of societal good that may come from an experiment. Additionally, nonanimal methods should be used whenever possible.

PCRM’s petition for administrative action states, “Genetic, physiological, and anatomical differences between humans and monkeys dramatically limit the conclusions that can be drawn from the planned experiments. Ongoing studies, including those funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, already use nonanimal methods to determine the effects of low-dose radiation on human tissues.”

The petition continues: “Interplanetary human travel is, at best, a highly speculative aim for the foreseeable future. It is obviously fraught with many dangers and enormous expense, while serving goals that are not at all clear. To put animals through radiation tests now in anticipation of such an enterprise is in no way justified.”