Monkeys in space suits

February 19, 1997|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- In the bitter strife between mainstream science and animal-rights advocates, the scientists have made a strong case for experimenting on animals to advance human welfare. In fact, anyone who disputes them is likely to be relegated to the nut fringe.

But you don't have to be an animal-rights zealot to wonder about NASA sinking 31 million scarce government dollars into an international study of how monkeys with electrodes in their brains and wires in their bodies react to a two-week space voyage.

The question was of scientific interest and practical importance in the long-ago beginnings of manned space flight, when human experience in the unknowns of weightlessness was limited to a few days. But in recent years, human space travelers have remained in orbit for months at time, serving as the subjects of countless sophisticated and productive experiments on the bodily and psychological effects of zero gravity.

Plenty of subjects

Many unknowns remain about the ill effects of space on bone density, muscle mass and cardiac fitness. But the best experimental subjects for studying the effects of space on humans are humans in space. And these days, they're plentiful, aboard the Russian Mir and the American Space Shuttle.

NASA's animal experimenters, however, won't give up. Their rigidity is compounded by American commitments to sustain the impoverished Russian space enterprise, which has a long tradition of shooting monkeys into space.

Thus, when a Space Shuttle flight for a Franco-American monkey experiment was canceled in 1994, the project, called Bion 11, was handed over to the Russians. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, French animal-rights organizations and individual scientists disputed the scientific value of the experiment.

Last summer, the House voted to cut off its funds. NASA bounced back with a favorable evaluation from a panel of scientists, and the termination effort failed in the Senate.

On Christmas Eve, in a capsule supplied by the Russians, Bion 11, carrying two rhesus monkeys, was launched into orbit from a Russian cosmodrome for a two-week flight.

A success -- but . . .

As described in the authoritative weekly Space News:

''While in orbit, the monkeys were dressed in space suits, which were secured to chairs. Their heads were shaved and small holes were drilled into their skulls to permit sensors to take regular readings of body temperature. A half-dozen electrodes were put into the monkeys' muscles, with the wiring connected to recording devices. On the ground in Moscow, two other rhesus monkeys were in the same basic position to permit comparisons of the reaction to weightlessness.''

The experiment was deemed a success. But then one of the monkeys died, in circumstances unrelated to its space voyage, according to NASA officials and their colleagues in the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, who offered the following account.

Shortly after their return from space, the monkeys were anesthetized at the institute for the removal of bone and muscle specimens. On the following day, as one of them was emerging from the anesthetic, it went into cardiac arrest and died, despite efforts at resuscitation. The cause of death is under study by NASA and the Russian institute.

Antiquated experiments

Meanwhile, preparations continue for launching Bion 12 in 1998.

The scientific justification for these antiquated experiments is nil. But that doesn't deter the champions of animal experimentation from emulating the extravagant rhetoric of their opposites. In the old days, space enthusiasts invented tales of Tang and Teflon coming out of space research, which they most assuredly did not. They have since graduated to grander claims, of similarly thin substance.

In a statement supporting the Bion experiment, Americans for Medical Progress declared that the project would not only help humans in space but would also ''assist in understanding and finding treatments for anemia, osteoporosis, muscular atrophy and immune-system dysfunction for patients on Earth.''

As a recruiting tool for the animal-rights movement, Bion is a dream that can turn into a nightmare for legitimate experimentation on animals.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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