Dr. Marjorie Cramer is a retired plastic surgeon who lives in Manhattan.
X-rays, solar and cosmic radiation. We know that these and other sources of ionizing radiation are harmful to humans. So why would NASA want to bombard as many as 30 squirrel monkeys with radiation to try to understand how interplanetary travel affects astronauts?
The proposal for this research is now being reviewed at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the lab's Community Advisory Council - created to get recommendations from the community about what happens at the lab - is expected to provide a recommendation in about a month.
As a physician, I know that such research won't help us protect humans. We've long known that radiation is harmful. Even when I began as a surgeon decades ago, we knew to absolutely minimize patients' exposure to radiation.
We already know that a trip to Mars would be extremely dangerous. NASA knows from four decades of radiation experiments, observation of exposed populations, and monitoring of astronauts during space travel that cosmic radiation can cause cancers, severe or lethal brain damage, and other serious illnesses.
Still, NASA believes the squirrel monkey experiments will tell them how the human central nervous system is affected by deep-space travel. They hope the research will enable them to anticipate the specific cognitive problems astronauts could encounter on a trip to Mars or other deep-space targets, allowing them to build the necessary spaceship shielding.
But important differences between humans and squirrel monkeys severely diminish the usefulness of any potential findings. Adult squirrel monkeys generally weigh less than 2 pounds - and this is just the most obvious difference. Squirrel monkeys' brain structure and development also are significantly different from humans'. And previous radiation experiments in monkeys have led other researchers to conclude that monkeys are poor models for the effects of radiation on humans.
NASA has lately made a move toward nonanimal research. Of the 12 grants they recently approved to study the effect of deep-space travel on the human body, this is the only one that uses animals. Why is NASA planning to ignore history and repeat its mistakes with this experiment?
If NASA plans to send astronauts on long-distance space flights despite the many dangers, the agency should invest all available funding in state-of-the-art research to determine exposures and optimal shielding for astronauts. High-tech methods of studying radiation exposures include statistical software models and human phantoms equipped with radiation sensors, and both methods have been shown to be better than monkey radiation experiments.
NASA states that this study is necessary to understand how radiation will affect astronauts in "long duration spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit." Twenty-four American astronauts have already flown beyond low-Earth orbit - any data obtained from them will be more useful than data found through laboratory experiments on 2-pound monkeys.
Aside from their dubious value, these proposed experiments also violate fundamental criteria for ethical research. Squirrel monkeys are extremely social animals who live in groups of as many as 500. The proposed experiments involve housing them in individual cages for several years, as well as testing the animals in restraint chairs five days a week for at least four years.
As the management at Brookhaven National Lab decides in the coming months whether this research will proceed there, I hope it takes note of the numerous problems with this research. And I hope NASA decides to redistribute its funding to modern, productive research to protect those who explore our solar system.