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Russia to Send Monkeys to Mars

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Frank April 14, 2008, 3:20 PM

    How much does this sound like a plausible reality for our past? I mean, a more sophisticated civilization sending an ape to the earth as a test and having that species evolve into humans over history sounds more like the truth then a seven day religious fabrication…

    I think the Russians are onto something here.

  • PENIX April 14, 2008, 5:51 PM

    Back when they didn’t know how the effects of space would affect a living creature, they sent animals. We already know what happens in space, and we have equipment to test what the environment will be like during the trip. It is pointless to start sending monkeys again.

  • k98148 April 14, 2008, 6:30 PM

    Just one step closer to Planet of the Apes.. but perhaps they’ll take over Mars.

    Roll over in your grave Heston :)

    (all puns intended)

  • iasku April 15, 2008, 5:03 AM

    So sending a monkey into space is cruel. But KFC is still good, right?

  • PHWilson April 15, 2008, 5:27 AM

    I’m just damned glad its Russia taking this heat. The USA would fold to the P.E.T.

  • Dave S April 15, 2008, 6:43 AM

    It’s a waste of time to send humans to Mars. We could learn more and at less cost and risk with robots. We will never be able to really live on Mars. It will be like living on a submarine. Don’t kill the animals testing for a ill conceived human voyage.

  • Wayne S. April 15, 2008, 6:55 AM

    If we do not have the courage to go into space, but we insist on sending relatively unintelligent species then we probably don’t belong there to begin with. Ditto for animal testing………………

  • Code Monkey April 15, 2008, 11:04 AM

    Get your filthy paws off me you dam|n dirty Russian!

  • alokmohan April 16, 2008, 3:35 AM

    Sending monkeys to mars will be cruel.A signal from mars wont help us to act.What is all this for?

  • Jim Brown April 16, 2008, 10:07 AM

    Actually sending humans to Mars is much more cost effective. A human can in seconds what it takes robots to do in months. Also humans can build the infrastructure to do much more and go much further. Send humans to mine, manufacture, construct, learn and go on.

  • coaltit April 17, 2008, 11:36 AM

    Will the apes decay on Mars or get dry-freezed or something? What about the possible bio-contamination?

  • Steven O Driscoll April 19, 2008, 7:08 AM

    Sending monkeys to Mars is a complete waste of time.

    I would have expected better from Russia.

    Russia should concentrate on getting a few successful probes to Mars first like there excellent missions to Venus.

  • Seth Eden May 11, 2008, 9:03 PM

    “What about the possible bio-contamination?”

    What contamination, when was the last time a human caught Dutch Elm Disease, and when ever has a tree caught the flu?

    NEVER, because people and anamals don’t catch infections or diseases from distantly related species.

    For that matter there is natural transfer of Martian material to Earth all the time and it’s been going on for the entire history of the Earth, however long you believe that to be. If there are bugs on Mars of any kind they’ve already infected Earth.

    Rather then trying to find an excuse to why humans shouldn’t travel to Mars, why don’t you just say that humans should go to Mars. For that matter, just go back in time and tell Ferdinand and Isabella to burn the ships and forget about settling the “New World” of North America cause it’s just a waste of time, nothing but more treas and mountains.

  • Msmith April 1, 2009, 8:28 PM

    Next to this article in google there was an article on sending criminals into space, I think we should do that after having been informed of all the risks a human could sign off that they understand the risk and still want to go, monkeys cannot do this. I bet enough inmates would sign up, better to die in the pursuit of science than slowly rot in a jail cell…