Russia to Send Monkeys to Mars

by Ian O'Neill on April 14, 2008

Bion, trying out an orbital module, was one of the first into space, in December 1983. (BBC)
Russia has a long history of scientific discovery and space exploration through the use of animals. Beginning with space dog Laika in 1957, the space program expanded to run tests on other dogs (many returned safely to Earth) and eventually monkeys. Although the monkey testing program was stopped through lack of funding in the mid-1990’s, the nation has announced plans to send the closest relation to humans to a place where no man has gone before: Mars. And here’s us thinking it will be a human first stepping onto the Martian surface…

I must admit, I had to read the story twice before I believed it. Russia wants to send monkeys not only into space, but to Mars. I had an idea that monkeys (or more specifically macaques) were used in space missions in the past, but in my mind this was in the past and would be considered cruel in this day and age. But hold on, aren’t macaques used in medical experiments the world over anyway? Why is it so shocking that macaques should be chosen to pioneer interplanetary travel before mankind?

These questions are emotive (and controversial) and will cause much debate internationally. Many will believe that the experimental testing on animals in the ultra-modern world of space travel will seem barbaric, but there are some serious problems we might definitively answer through the use of macaque space travel. First and foremost, due to the interplanetary radiation we expect to be bathed in during a transit to Mars, by studying a macaque’s physiology during the long journey we may be able to learn how the human body will react to larger than normal doses. The fact remains, monkeys are genetically close to humans, its little wonder that we turn to them for answers.

To this end, monkeys at the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology, at Vesyoloye near the Black Sea, have begun the selection process for the ultimate medical animal testing experiment. The institute has a long history of involvement in the Russian and Soviet space program. Sochi was the training facility for the first monkeys into space in 1983. Abrek and Bion had a five-day trip around Earth and were returned safely in Kazakhstan and rehabilitated to live “normal lives”. Two years after this historic flight, monkeys Verny and Gordy spent seven days in space. In 1987, Dryoma and Yerosha spent a record breaking (for a monkey-assisted flight) two-weeks in space. Interestingly, Dryoma was given to Cuban leader Fidel Castro as a gift. Following this, in 1989, 1992 and 1996, three two-week flights were carried out until funding for the project ran out. Now experiments have been continued on Earth to simulate weightlessness.

Now, to revitalize Sochi’s history of macaque space flight, they are beginning a two-year program to select 40 monkeys to be sent to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow so tests can be continued into aerospace biomedicine. This will culminate in a possible primate mission to Mars.

People and monkeys have approximately identical sensitivity to small and large radiation doses, so it is better to experiment on the macaques, but not on dogs or other animals.” Boris Lapin, Institute Director.

Critics of the program are frustrated by the use of animal testing in any capacity, but remain realistic about the situation. “Humanity sacrifices more than 100 million animals a year in the name of health and beauty. It’s time to think of an alternative to experiments with animals,” says Andrei Zbarsky of the conservation group the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“…certainly, I feel sorry for the monkeys, they might die, but the experiments are necessary to preserve the lives of the cosmonauts who will fly to Mars in future” – Anaida Shaginyan, Institute Researcher.

This will be a controversial measure by the Russian space program and they are expecting resistance from their European partners. Although monkeys and other animals are used in medical science here on Earth, it might prove too distasteful and cruel for most, but possibly the only means to measure the physical impact on the human body after a long trip to Mars.

Source: BBC

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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