JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — April Evans wrestled for weeks whether to quit her dream job working for NASA’s operations with the International Space Station.
She concluded in March there was no other option but to resign after learning the space agency proposed a $1.75 million experiment to irradiate 18 squirrel monkeys to determine astronauts’ ability to withstand high levels of continuous radiation in deep space.
In late January, Evans overheard co-workers complaining about traffic delays from a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest at Bay Area Boulevard and Space Center Boulevard.
She called a friend who worked near the protest to get more information.
"I thought it had to be untrue," Evans said. "I was horrified."
Evans had worked for nine years on assembly operations and visiting vehicle operations to the space station.
After filing complaints with her bosses went nowhere, Evans said she couldn’t work for NASA knowing the agency was supporting experiments that, in her opinion, were unnecessary.
The experiment is under review, and there’s a chance it might not happen, Michael Braukus, a NASA spokesman, said.
The experiment will test radiation sickness medications for astronauts who would face up to three years of continuous cosmic radiation exposure on deep-space missions to Mars or asteroids.
"The experiment will find out exactly what are the harmful effects," Braukus said. "The experiment will be a part of the solution in helping determine how to mitigate long-term cosmic radiation exposure."
The experiment results wouldn’t apply to astronauts, Evans said. Scientists will administer the monkeys with one large dose of radiation, which will produce different results than prolonged exposure, she said.
Evans’ disagreement with the experiment became fueled by her opinion of a faulty space policy.
In preparing for deep space exploration, NASA should spend money on development for space hardware that shields radiation from entering a vehicle, instead of treating the effects of radiation, she said.
Evans supported President Barack Obama’s NASA budget plan, which drew ire from politicians from states with major space centers who feared thousands of job losses.
The Senate and House approved separate bills that call for scaling back Obama’s plan that relied on commercial vehicles to take astronauts to the space station while NASA focused on deep-space travel technology. The European Space Agency has rejected the use of primates in any experiments, Jean-Jacques Dordain, acting director general of agency wrote in a letter to Animal Defenders International.
"ESA declines any interest in monkey research and does not consider any need or use for such results," Dordain’s letter stated.
PETA has sponsored protests at every space center in the country against the proposed experiment.
Evans’ resignation emphasizes how misguided the experiment proposal is, Justin Goodman, associate director of laboratory investigations with PETA, said.
PETA in June placed a billboard ad on Interstate 45 about a mile north of Loop 610 in Houston that depicted a blood-splattered NASA logo with the words, "Take a giant leap for mankind. Stop torturing monkeys."
"NASA hasn’t provided data that the results will be applicable to humans," Goodman said. "The monkeys will be locked in a lab for rest of their lives, go blind and develop cancer. It’s cruel and won’t provide reliable information on the effects of space radiation on astronauts."
Evans is quick, however, to distance herself from what she called PETA’s "spectacle tactics."
"My dad has a hunting lease in East Texas," she said. "I hunted and fished growing up. I’m a meat-eater. I’m just against unnecessary animal testing on intelligent life."
Evans is now living with her mom in Manvel and hopes to have a job by December.
With a passion for aerospace engineering, Evans can’t imagine working outside the space industry.
She will meet with members of Congress in Washington to discuss her stances on the experiments and U.S. space policy.
Evans said she hopes to one day return to work for NASA if the agency focuses more on developing and researching technology for deep-space exploration.
"Space exploration is hurting by politicians masking the issue with the job losses," she said. "Reviving parts of Constellation are stopping that technology for deeper space from being developed."
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