Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monkeys on Mars


Here's the movie George Clooney should be making. Scott found an interesting page on IO9 that claimed Monkeys May Be Headed to Mars, describing a program to train monkeys to work with robots, which can feed and clean up after them during the trip:

"The Georgian Institute of Experimental Pathology & Therapy is in talks with Russia's Cosmonautics Academy about a program to train monkeys for a journey to Mars. The Institute supplied monkeys in the 1980s, when Russia began sending monkeys into orbit. Because a round-trip voyage would take an estimated 520 days and would subject cosmonauts to high levels of radiation, there are concerns about sending humans. We may see how other primates fare first."

I combed the net for other mentions, finding tidbits in various outlets (nothing on the official websites of the participating agencies just yet – perhaps this was designed to test the waters?), and was not surprised to discover a relation to Mars500, the joint Roskosmos/ESA habitat simulations.

Space Monkey
The Independent ran the most comprehensive view in an article called Stalin's Space Monkeys -- a detailed look at the controversial history of the institute, ground-breaking disease research, their more disturbing experiments up through the Cold War, plus their role in training monkeys to carry out functions in space before perestroika devastated much of the scientific work carried out across the former Soviet Union.

Only one article cites possible "ethical difficulties," and they only casually discuss the inherent obstacles to training. Director of the Institute, Zurab Mikvabia, was quoted as saying, "Technicians say it's not difficult to build such a robot. The hard part is teaching the monkey to cooperate with the robot."

Y’think?? A macaque named Yerosha was raised and trained at the institute, and went into space in 1987. During his flight, he freed one of his paws from his encasement. Alarmed scientists on the ground could only watch helplessly as he tore sensors from his body and started randomly pressing buttons in his spacecraft. What might one do to a robot he dislikes?

Monkeys to Mars?
I found numerous other articles, but they all similarly raise more questions than they answer:

Mars Daily: War-Torn Nursery Hopes To Send Monkeys To Mars

UK Telegraph: Monkey To Be Sent To Mars

Popular Science: Former Soviet Monkey Nursery Wants To Send Ape To Mars

Warning to biological pet-peevists: most of the reporting journalists do not know the difference between "monkeys" and "apes."

Baboons, macaques and chimpanzees are all mentioned, though it’s not clear which species may be chosen for training. I’m usually excited about any "simulation" news by any space program, but I honestly cannot decide how I feel about this one.

Existing tests show that primate immune systems are seriously weakened when exposed to the radiation levels of solar flares, and we’d be using these animals to gauge the severity and longevity of such side effects.

I know there are multiple centers all over the world where primates face far worse ordeals than being fed by robots – maybe even worse ordeals than launching out of Earth’s atmosphere... but in the long run, I have a hard time believing this wouldn’t end up being a one-way trip for the animals.