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NASA-funded monkey-radiation experiment raises hackles

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NASA monkey radiation experimentA nonprofit group that promotes animal rights in medical research has taken issue with a NASA grant funding an assessment of the long-term effects of radiation on monkeys. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), based in Washington, D.C., sent an appeal Thursday to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, urging that the radiobiology study, intended to test the effects of radiation encountered in long-range spaceflight, be suspended.

The research project, led by Jack Bergman of McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate in Belmont, Mass., was one of 12 awarded radiobiology research grants through NASA’s Human Research Program, the space agency announced October 27. In Bergman’s study, according to Discovery News, 18 to 28 squirrel monkeys would be subjected to radiation and periodically tested to gauge how exposure affects performance in a variety of learned tasks. Stellar and galactic radiation would bombard astronauts on missions to Mars, but the health effects of such a trip are not well known.

Such an experiment, the PCRM quipped in the petition to Bolden, "would be one giant leap backward for NASA." Calling the proposal "unnecessary" and "cruel," the organization maintains that Bergman’s research would violate NASA’s stated principles regarding animal ethics. That 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.

The PCRM sees little benefit to humankind in an environment where lofty spaceflight goals are banging against harsh economic and political realities. "Interplanetary human travel is, at best, a highly speculative aim for the foreseeable future," the organization’s appeal states. "To put animals through radiation tests now in anticipation of such an enterprise is in no way justified."

Bergman, for his part, begs to differ. "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 told Discovery News. "That’s not been well assessed."

Photo of squirrel monkey: Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. Monki 7:53 pm 11/6/2009

    It probably is going to be decades before interplanetary human travel can either be afforded or even needed. In the meantime testing procedures can be advanced without moving to far into the animal kingdom that eventually animal sacrifices will no longer be necessary. Humankind needs to recover some of it’s humanity fairly soon or IMO we are doomed to a "Blade Runner" future instead a truly democratic and prosperous future, both body and soul.

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  2. 2. Michael Hanlon 8:29 pm 11/6/2009

    Mr. President, Please stop this ‘NASA Problem".
    .The McLean Hospital is a leader in the study of insanity. That used to be it’s sole mission. I guess it has gotten greedy and is taking grant money now to kill mammals. The effects of radiation is a ’tissue problem’. Putting together their use of semi-cognizant mammals and their history of insanity investigation, my guess is they’ll find that testing drives monkeys crazy. Stop this now. ‘

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  3. 3. Michael Hanlon 8:51 pm 11/6/2009

    Hmmm, let’s give our monkey-radiation study money to a place that specializes in schizophrenia. Idea: put the monkeys in charge and study the dumbasses at NASA who made this choice of testing and put them in the Hospital.

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  4. 4. Michael Hanlon 8:56 pm 11/6/2009

    I am not an advocate of PETA nor its methods, but just exactly what new bit about radiation are we expected to learn that 100 yrs, a full Century, of study hasn’t told us already?

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  5. 5. Michael Hanlon 8:58 pm 11/6/2009

    Strange, isn’t it? that the bigger the number that appears above the headline, the more people come to see and hear what’s being said.

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  6. 6. Michael Hanlon 9:03 pm 11/6/2009

    This is the last one solely for attracting attention, I swear on my monkey’s uncle’s grave (or, is he the one who volunteered for some kinda study?).

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  7. 7. Michael Hanlon 11:27 pm 11/6/2009

    You can tell by the time that I’ve had a while to calm down and gather my thoughts. And here’s what I now think:
    .The provisions of the testing cannot meet their goal from the get go. They will not be able to duplicate the types of radiation our spacefarers will be exposed to. Any data they gather will have no relevance to the real situation out there. Have they learned how to generate "cosmic rays" (there’s no such thing, there are energetic protons neutrons and electrons and the whole gamut of e/m waves from gamma down to audio, Oh and that new one ‘y’ that’s been mentioned, but cosmic rays? I laugh). If they cannot create a quality simulation of the environment to test in, why do the test? And why monkeys? Sweden’s Stokholm municipal government has plenty of mammals to ‘volunteer’ for the test

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  8. 8. Michael Hanlon 11:41 pm 11/6/2009

    This isn’t the only study either!!!!!!!!!1
    .The article states 11 more grants were announced for radioboological research. What’s being tested at those other labs? How deadly the common cold can become in a long term hi-radiance closed environment? How about testing to see if the subjects become sterile?

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  9. 9. Michael Hanlon 11:47 pm 11/6/2009

    Imagine if all this "TAXPAYER" money had been spent to advance the ‘state-of-the-art’ in Parachute Reliability. Or ways to coat the exterior of the ARES-1 to prevent static build up going through clouds during its climb to orbit?
    Or a toilet that flushed without clogging in zero-g?

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  10. 10. Michael F 11:48 pm 11/6/2009


    I question your rationality simply based on the number of consecutive posts you’ve made here.

    Personally, I DO see the relevance no matter how many decades away interplanetary travel might be (as cited, due primarily to economic conditions.) Are objectors contending that we should do all the research, build the multi-billion dollar spacecraft, and THEN test to see if it’s going to kill our astronauts? A little late at that point, don’t ya think?

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  11. 11. Michael Hanlon 11:54 pm 11/6/2009

    Or a rocket impact that went boom when it hit the Moon? Or the presentation of test results from that ‘go boom’? Or detonating explosives in the shuttle external fuel tank to insure destruction on its tumble to Earth, instead of carrying it into orbit to be used for habitat? Or, miscalculating the risk assessment of the 99942 Apophis close encounter to the Earth? Yes, the wrong monkeys were designated for the testing.

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  12. 12. Michael Hanlon 12:20 am 11/7/2009

    ":Oo, Oo", in the words of Officer Tooty from ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ I just reviewed the other observation blogs here and which other one do you think comes up positive as being exposed to and associated with the Harvard School of Medicine? The one where the issue of considering dementia as being a terminal illness!! I’m surprised but not entirely convinced that no study was proposed that would have used Harvard’s dementia patients as the test panel in this study.

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  13. 13. krabcat 12:51 am 11/7/2009

    ok…12 posts…3 people
    now that that is strait, can people post what THEY think about the subject instead of what Michael Hanlon thinks?
    it is too late for me to make an intelligent comment right now because itis almost 1 am so i will check back tomorrow.

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  14. 14. briang1958 9:15 am 11/7/2009

    I think if Dr. Bergman is so interested in knowing the results of radiation exposure, he should test it on himself…just think how much more valid the results would be if tested on a supposedly intelligent human being!

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  15. 15. omgitshim 9:43 am 11/7/2009

    Wow….so reminds me of the movie Project X where they did same thing to chimps. What a shome, our closest link and we torture them.

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  16. 16. Michael F 2:04 pm 11/7/2009

    Of course it’s regrettable, but it’s regrettably necessary. It’s also a shame we eat beef, use horse hair for paint brushes, use gelatin in ice cream and Jell-o, and use fatty-acids in plastics… but you know what? We DO all those things.

    @Briang1958: Are you actually suggesting that it would be okay to test radiation on a human being but not on a monkey? Is THAT your position?

    Sometimes the ‘big picture’ needs to take priority. I bet you’d have been outside the coal protesting the use of canaries to detect toxic gases and saving human lives. Why not just send a human being with asthma down there instead? Surely he’d succumb to the methane in the air before his non-asthma counterparts – and then we’re not torturing little birdies! Hooray!

    Wake up, people. The world is not a land of sunshine and rainbows that you’d like it to be. Just stay off websites like this and keep yourself ignorant of exactly HOW research is done. That way you can continue to reap all the benefits and not feel guilty about how it was achieved. Because, quite frankly, if you’re not ready to give up every single produce or service in life that used some kind of controversial animal testing then you’re a hypocrite who’s opinion has no place in the issue.

    I hope that one day we develop the technology that makes the use of animal testing unnecessary, I truly do. But when that day comes, I’d been willing to bet that, ironically, animal testing was an integral step in getting there.

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  17. 17. science2000 3:25 pm 11/7/2009

    Just wanted to add my voice to the list opposing this study. I am uncertain why more expensive human missions are needed anyway. Continue with cheaper robotic missions!

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  18. 18. science2000 3:33 pm 11/7/2009

    Michael F, you mention looking at the ‘big picture’. I’m looking at the big picture of why do we currently need human space exploration. I don’t see a need. Please explain why we need to do human exploration at this time. Then, explain why this need outweighs the use of monkeys for radiation research (and the monetary costs of the experiments and human space exploration).

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  19. 19. briang1958 7:02 pm 11/7/2009

    Michael F

    Yes, that IS my position. Why do you automatically assume that a human’s life is any more important than an animal’s?

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  20. 20. Michael Hanlon 8:48 pm 11/7/2009

    F…. you question my rationality? Because I had many points to be made about this and I chose to voice them? What is irrational about that? I think your thermometer is broken.
    .I now question your rationality AND scientific prowess when you cannot deny that my claim of improper test parameters are being used and you continue to defend this inquiry. If they left the monkeys in the ISS, then they’d have the exposure the test calls for. Oh wait, that test is ongoing with our brave astronauts as the test subjects. To perform the test on Earth is a waste.
    .How can NASA provide funding to an experiment which is not going to produce viable results. Anything learned in the exposure of these squirrel monkeys to just gamma rays will only allow conjecture as to what the results imply. So, Again, why do the test if the results will be invalid?

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  21. 21. Michael F 9:25 pm 11/7/2009

    I don’t "assume" it; I believe it. It’s also a generally accepted tenant in society. We eat animals. We use their by-products in all sorts of everyday items. Hunting animals is legal, hunting human beings is not. To argue that humans are not "more important" than an animals is a waste of your time, as that fight’s already been decided. If there was a runaway train car heading down the tracks toward a human being stuck on the tracks, and you were at a switch that would send the train onto a side track that had a monkey sitting on it, would you? Would you save the innocent human at the expense of the innocent monkey?

    The need is, admittedly, debatable. Like most things in life, it depends on where an individual’s priorities are. Personally, I believe that exploration and, eventually extra-planetary human outposts and settlements are vital to our continued growth and even survival as a species.

    Our generation won’t see the direct benefits from this exploration, and out children may not see it, either. But it is our duty to do our part, so that our children may build upon what we’ve done, and their children upon that; just as we have done with those that came before us.

    Please don’t misunderstand my position. I am not advocating the torture of animals. For superficial things like cosmetics testing I think it’s absolutely despicable. I do feel, however, that if animal testing can help us reach a cure for cancer or for AIDS then it is worth the cost. Human beings are tortured by these diseases every day, and much like stem cell research, the morality involved is measured differently by each individual.

    There have been so many scientific advancements that have proven invaluable to human beings’ survival that involved animal testing: the polio vaccine, rabies and tetanus research, and countless others. It’s unfortunate that we have to make that choice, but in the end, it’s our duty as a species to do everything we can to ensure our survival. Just as a lion (or any other animal) does in the wild. A lion will kill you without hesitation if doing so helps it survive. We are all animals and what we are doing is nothing different.

    I realize that most of you who oppose this research will not agree with me, and I don’t expect you to. I do respect your opinion, I just do not share it.

    @Michael Hilton:
    I’m not even going to respond. I’m not a physicist and I cannot testify to the relevance of the data collected. I do, however, trust NASA physicists assessments much more than I do yours.

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  22. 22. NataliaC74 12:17 am 11/8/2009

    First, we know accurately what radiation causes to humans, we have extensive information on that issue. Second, we are the ones going to Mars, monkeys aren’t, and there’s nothing in this investigation that might help mankind, so don’t try to go that way! What are the conclusions going to be, that radiation cause cell mutation, cancer, abortion, internal bleeding, death? Wow! No news! If you want to know what happens when you expose a human being to radiation, read about Chernobyl, enough people and animals have died for the atom, no need to kill more just to go to Mars!! Give me a break!

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  23. 23. NataliaC74 12:26 am 11/8/2009

    The lion kills to survive, that’s correct. Are we killing that little monkey to survive, too? No! The monkey is not trying to attack you, you just want to go to Mars… Can you see the difference? Plus we are not ready for Mars, we can’t even go back to the Moon… what use is it? Let’s continue sending probes -by the way, have you notice the high levels of failure all our missions to Mars have? Would you risk the lives and the funds to fail with humans on board? Perhaps we should refine our navigation techniques before even considering the possibility of sending people in such a long journey.

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  24. 24. Michael Hanlon 2:21 am 11/8/2009

    Please stop with your ethical dilemnas. Due to physicists at Bell Labs, the transistor was developed (no animal testing involved) and now we have sniff meters which tell us the percentage of methane in the mine. And what part of a horse suffers when we make brushes from his hair? And they’re mostly made from pig bristle anyway. Here’s a take, that human stuck on the track? yell at him to get off and go save the monkey. How’d the sticking happen in the first place? Maybe some NASA manager doing some of his own glue evaluation? I’m willing to bet that Mikey F has some financial tie to this bastardly test.
    .And why exactly are they unsure of the number of monkeys the test will consume? (Mike F: NASA brains can’t figure out the sample size?)
    .Here’s hoping a Bruce Banner event occurs and the Squirrel Hulkeys go get Mr. F.

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  25. 25. briang1958 7:50 am 11/8/2009

    Michael F
    "I don’t ‘assume it’; I believe it" – Ummm, what’s the difference?
    "…. that fight’s already been decided." – and yet here you are fighting it again. It was "decided" that the world was flat once too…
    And I liked Michael Hanton’s idea about your little experiment; yell at the human to go and save the monkey…but of course if the human was you, you probably wouldn’t want to be bothered saving the monkey. Seriously,all other things being equal, I’d probably save the human. I’m sure that would be my instinct anyway, to save one of "us" at the expense of one of "them". Of course that’s the same instinct that leads to racism, sexism, and most other "isms" too. I hope you aren’t arguing that those are okay? Now if I had time to research the monkey & the human’s lives, and found that the human only had a few distant relatives and was fairly elderly and not generally liked too much (sorry if I touched on any nerves there, Michael), and the monkey was young and vibrant and had a wife and kids waiting for him at home…well, I’d probably save the monkey.

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  26. 26. Richieo 8:19 am 11/8/2009

    The money would be better spent researching materials/methods to protect the astronauts and the craft, which would make this kind of research unnecessary/obsolete….

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  27. 27. hotblack 12:54 pm 11/8/2009

    How do you really feel about it, Michael? Also, have you seen a shrink lately?

    Where the hell is the ethics board here? People need to be a little smarter than "stick a monkey in a box and slowly kill it". You can’t test the effects on biopsy samples? If the testing procedures haven’t advanced beyond this, then the research should wait and more effort should be spent on devising a decent test.

    What’s next, orphan babies? Why not, they’re almost as smart, and no one’s going to miss them, and hey, with 7,000,000,000 of us, if we can afford to lose proportionately as many as the monkeys, that’s a lot more test subjects. Ahhh, but we’re hard-wired biologically to wuv widdle human babies, so it’s unthinkable.

    Our arrogant and myopic disregard for non-human life has got to be the most dangerous element of our character as a species.

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  28. 28. MisterA 1:00 pm 11/8/2009

    LOL too right!

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  29. 29. dhutson 2:07 pm 11/8/2009

    Reminds me of George Saunders’ short story "93990." Read it and I think you’ll be a little less dispassionate about the issue of animal experimentation.

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  30. 30. Burkl 6:47 pm 11/8/2009

    Seeing our space program advance would definitely be a boon, however these studies would do nothing short of state the obvious. As another poster commented…do we not have enough proof of the affects of long term exposure to radiation? Case in point: Chernobyl. It’s possible that a research division which studies schizophrenia – not exactly a bread winning cause – would use an experiment like this to try and bundle in other research. However, I’m wondering what research they may be trying to bundle in with it…the application of radiation to cure chemical imbalances? I’d rather wait to utilize more advanced and humane methods of research rather than see such cruelty bestowed on creatures who have no choice in the matter…and yes, it is cruel. If you think not, then feel free to step up to the plate an offer your services as a test subject.

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  31. 31. Michael Hanlon 9:16 pm 11/8/2009

    The effects of radiation on Sanity-Challanged individuals occurred already in the fifties. The studies were semenal in the halting of radiation tests of anykind on humans. If you check the research papers, I’m not too far out on a limb if I expect you’d find Harvard Medical School as the conductor.

    So, what do those other 11 studies entail radiobiologically? I think a site is listed where we can find out . So. I’ll go there and report back.

    Love (strike that, find it to the point) the allusion to human orphans outnumbering the population of squirrel Hulkies in the world.

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  32. 32. Michael Hanlon 10:22 pm 11/8/2009

    I went to the cited Discovery site and found some interesting smarty bits, but no further leads on the other researches awarded grants by NASA. Next stop on that caravan is my home page at
    .The other interesting smarty bits are: 1)Jack Beergman is a Behavioral Pharmecologist (connection to radical monkies = bevaviourly or pharmaceutically?); 2) The monkeys are gonna get walloped with a low equivalent dose of a similar type of radiation that our astronauts will encounter when they go past Earth’s protective magnetic bottle; and, 3) there is a fake human skin tissue flying on a lunar probe mission (Fake skin? why not real? go ask Armstrong for a sample of long term effects of exposure to the rad types at the moon?)(not long term exposure, long term effects, he seems to have survived the exposure part but I haven’t talked to him lately)
    .And here, chop/quoted is a little heart warmer from Jack:
    [[For Bergman's study, squirrel monkeys trained on a variety of behavioral tasks will be tested to see how exposure to radiation impacts performance. The radiation exposures will take place at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. "The beauty of this is that we can assess at different time points after exposure, so not only do we get a sense of rather immediate effects, but then we can look again at longer time points," Bergman said. "That kind of information just hasn't been available." The animals, which will not be killed,(my insert: Oh, really? I bet you got insurance on it though) will remain at McLean Hospital, where they will be overseen by veterinarians and staff.
    "McLean Hospital is responsible for the lifetime care of the primates," NASA wrote in an email. "No further research is planned for them at this time."]]
    .Now how exactly does Brookhaven generate this new kind of Radiation they call Galactic?

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  33. 33. MechEngineer 10:00 am 11/9/2009

    Well, there is a need for space exploration. Do people honestly believe that humanity can stay on Earth forever?

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  34. 34. BanJimCramer 12:57 pm 11/9/2009

    -Statistics to test radiation exposure against cognitive reasoning is required for astronaunts who will most likely not have a spacecraft made from lead…

    -Yes, radiation testing on humans is not knew, but new variables are inserted into the equations. Some of which could be construction materials and the frequency of radiation exposures

    -Yes economic conditions at the moment are poor… but they will get better… and then they will be poor again… and then good… and then worse.. and then better…. etc…. "does it really matter?"

    Yes, unfortunatley some monkeys will die, but perhaps you should voice your convern about all the hundreds of monkey’s that are killed daily to be served as bush meat? or thousands from deforestation and pollution?

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  35. 35. Beaglelady 2:42 pm 11/9/2009

    "Or a rocket impact that went boom when it hit the Moon? "

    That was an insurance scam!

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  36. 36. Beaglelady 2:44 pm 11/9/2009

    So please tell us why we MUST go to Mars.

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  37. 37. Beaglelady 2:45 pm 11/9/2009


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  38. 38. JaneB 4:24 pm 11/9/2009

    I love it when Walmart greeters talk science. If any of you have a degree in anything applicable to this study, please keep posting. If not, don’t. It is that simple. There is a reason that these studies are done so far ahead of time. Because the ship that is built eventually will have to meet the safety standards that are decided on after doing the research. It’s called the scientific method. And just because you do not understand what cosmic radiation entails, does not mean that the people at NASA don’t. Where do you think seatbelts and airbags came from? Studies showing how many people died in accidents and by what kind of trauma they died. Then we developed cars that tried to stop that trauma. We don’t have the option of just sending people into space and seeing what happens. If we did, then you would complain about NASA wasting money on a mission where everyone died. How abotu this….ask PETA to fund a grant for anyone that comes up with a REALISTIC AND ACCURATE substitute for this or any other animal study. Ask PETA to put up a cash prize for any researcher that can do it. Instead of just making t-shirts with kittens on them.

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  39. 39. raptordigits 6:25 pm 11/9/2009

    This type of study turns me right off of man-in-space ‘imperatives’.

    Humans aren’t going anywhere meaningful in space. Let’s stop torturing animals to keep the delusion of ‘Star Trek’ going.

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  40. 40. Michael Hanlon 7:44 pm 11/9/2009

    I shall keep posting. You think you know better so no one else can have an opinion? Well I have those papers you require and here’s what cosmic rays are: all the E/M spectrum in wave energy and some quite speedy atomic masses, neutrinos elecrons and protons. So, I ask What is this galactic radiation?
    Okay they want to simulate a situation which may occur in a long term journey. A poorly designed craft could allow the riders to succumb to a storm dose of the radiation, agreed? They are hoping that there is by design, surviving riders and want to know what stresses they can or cannot handle in that situation. To do this they train the monkees to reliably perform a task. Then they dose the subjects with varying levels of rads (Animal a -=10%, animal b=15%,…animal 18,or 28?) Now the unaware monkeys don’t know what radiation is so the test needs some addition to simulate what they expect the environment to be like after that storm. They need to STRESS the monkees. They will do this (and this is why a behavioural pharmecologists was chosen) by visual, aural, olfactory taste and physical shocks, to which, for good insurance measure, they will use psychotropic ,mind altering drugs. But I found out that it’s only going to cost 1.7 million dollars to do this. So, it’s a dro-p in the bucket and what is expense against human life? And, I am the one who wants to man A ,xox> orbit continuously from the Earth to the Moon, But I do not condone my fellow humans performing this test type and am angered that my 1 cent will help fund it. Better to build a new shuttle with it.
    The nasa site where they state they announce the grantees does not actually list those grantees!

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  41. 41. ANTIcarrot 11:40 am 11/21/2009

    This study is being justified on the basis of the weight of radiation shielding, and the comparative weaknes of current rocket technology. Given that a trip to mars might be 10 or 20 years away, there is room enough for advancement in both fields to make this experiment completely pointless. Arcjet engines had 5 times the ISP of curent hydrogen rockets, and if the polywell reactor works (which we’ll know in about 23 months) then we can carry enough shielding mass to make this whole thing pointless.

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  42. 42. Michael Hanlon 2:25 am 11/30/2009

    Well, it’s been several weeks now since I emailed a request to the two NASA officials in charge of these grants to convey the details of the other projects. SILENCE is such a loud response sometimes.

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  43. 43. Michael Hanlon 3:17 am 12/18/2009

    I think one and a half months is way too long for public servants (2) to answer a request from a citizen to explain what that office is doing with our money.

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  44. 44. Tracey2010 9:24 pm 01/24/2010

    This is outrageous. This article has been shared on Facebook and the link has been removed. NASA doesn’t want people talking about their nasty little experiment? One wonders what new can be found about the deadly effects of radiation on innocent animals. They get sick? They die? Way to go National Association for Scientific ADVANCEMENT.

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  45. 45. Tracey2010 10:21 pm 01/24/2010

    My bad – wrong guess on what n a s a stood for.

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  46. 46. EnviroReporter 1:44 am 02/26/2010

    Check out "Space Monkey Business – Critics say NASA is taking a giant leap backwards by irradiating monkeys in space-travel tests" in the Pasadena Weekly newspaper, the first of two parts. Includes cover story and our Q & A with monkey radiation experiment facility, McClean Hospital. This is available at

    Next week: "We Robot – JPL, home of America’s greatest robotic explorations of the heavens, isn’t sold on deep-sixing the manned space program."

    We welcome your comments.

    Michael Collins

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  47. 47. recovered 6:02 pm 12/18/2010

    I agree, stop using the monkeys! President Obama is very pro NASA and space exploration. What’s with the naysayers?

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