NASA's Costly Bion Program
It's time to retire it
by David Lee Winston Miller
As a former NASA employee and an individual who has closely followed both the space program and animal research issues, I am deeply troubled by the space agency's endless Bion Program. I feel that this is yet another example of the aimless drift we continue to see in the space program.
According to NASA:
In cooperation with the Russian Space Agency (RSA), the Life Sciences flight program conducts primate biological experiments on unmanned biosatellites. The unmanned Bion series of biosatellites flies biological and radiation measurement experiments in near- Earth orbit. Since 1973, the Republic of Russia has launched ten biosatellites; the U.S. has participated in the last eight missions. The major objectives of the Bion investigations are to study the biological effects of microgravity and radiation on living systems; to evaluate living systems' adaptation to microgravity and other characteristics of space; and to evaluate the fundamental characteristics of living systems, using gravity as a variable. Bion primate missions last up to fourteen days.
According to the Animal Protection Institute (API):
The Bion Project is a $33.2 million joint U.S./French/Russian experiment at NASA's Ames Research Center where as many as 16 monkeys will be confined in straitjackets for 16 days, wired through their skulls and backs. . . .A wire will be passed through holes cut in each monkey's eyelids and then stitched to his eyeballs. A second wire is stitched to the right eye . . .
The Bion Program is wrong-headed on many levels:
The Bion Program reflects the too-great emphasis on space travel. We need less emphasis on human space travel and zero emphasis on endless animal experimentation to investigate it. With limited funds, we need more emphasis on:
Smaller, specific-purpose, "unmanned" missions. (For example, "sample and return" missions to Mars. No people = bigger payload & much lower costs! Note: According to Reuters, Dan Goldin, who heads NASA, stated in October of 1996, "I think we could be on Mars (with a human mission) ... in the second decade of the next century." While I'm glad he didn't urge an earlier mission, I feel that the second decade is still too early. I believe that a human mission should be low in our list of priorities.) There is much support for delay in the scientific community.
SETI. It may be unpopular in the Congress but it is a scientifically valid gamble. It is supported by many in the scientific community as being extremely low-cost for the weight of questions it attempts to answer. Although the chance of "pay-back" for expenditures is somewhat low (for the very near future), the possible benefits to human life could not begin to be measured. Much larger outlays are made for questionable medical research projects that have very little chance of producing tangible results. Even in "failure", SETI projects have the potential to produce advances in one of the most important modern research fields: Information Science (which, in turn, affects all other fields).
On another level, the ethical contradictions implied in using animals in a space program are inescapable and indefensible. Surely our space agency is fully aware of this ethical problem. I know of no ethic that can align such experiments (on "lower" animals) with the possibility of higher intelligence elsewhere in the universe. Either we must conclude that it is "impossible" for higher intelligence to exist in the universe because that would mean we have committed potentially comparable wrongs that we would not want committed against us, or we must admit the possibility of "higher" life based on scientific merit and forthrightly examine the ethics of animal experimentation. Obviously, the first (conclusion) is crazy and the second (admission), sensible. Regardless of whether or not there is, or is not, "higher" life in space, the analogies spawned by the questions surrounding SETI are valid. These analogies question our actions and cannot be justifiably ignored.
Down here on the ground, the Bion Program does not appear to be cost effective. The NASA Bion "Fact Sheet" that the space agency sends (if you complain about the program) fails to justify the vast expenses of these never-ending missions. In fact, the fact sheet avoids one of the most important "facts" there are concerning the Bion Program--the costs to the taxpayers. That's no small omission. But here is where you can find out budget facts: FISCAL YEAR 1996 ESTIMATES, BUDGET SUMMARY, OFFICE OF LIFE AND MICROGRAVITY SCIENCES AND APPLICATIONS.
SCOPE & BENEFITS
At best, Bion should be a one-time project, not a program of missions. Justifications (provided by NASA) based on a count of scientific papers do not begin to impress--paper count is an unscientific way to measure benefit or success. As for tangible benefits, the "Fact Sheet" provided by NASA fails to discuss the extent to which the scientific information (which is claims has been gained) is available through other sources. (The document makes very general--but unconvincing--claims about animal research in space, nonspecific to the Bion program. However, in the section specific to Bion, it fails to clearly compare or contrast Bion data with data from other programs--animal and human.)
It's also important to note that the expense of the Bion program does not represent the total cost of animal research at NASA. It seems that in so many Shuttle missions we hear of yet another expensive objective of learning how animals react to weightlessness.
With the number of experiments and the extent of expenditures, we should now have some fantastic results and real benefits for the earth-bound taxpayers--not the kind of "major findings" listed on the agency's "Fact Sheet". In addition, some (although not all) of these findings appear to be, at least in part, "common sense" items for the knowledgeable scientist. For example, the "major findings" of "reasons for bone mass loss" and "reasons for muscle loss including which muscles are affected and how" are easy findings to claim findings for because the term "reasons" can be used in a scientifically shallow way. The question is "to what depth of understanding in terms of basic science and/or to what tangible result" do these finding take us. The "Fact Sheet"--which is isn't a sheet at all, but rather a 7 page document plus attachments--doesn't say. As a taxpayer I am willing to part with money for basic science. However, I require a better explanation for my support of any program.
The claim that the Bion Program "will help answer questions for people here on Earth" because "many of [the conditions caused by weightlessness] are also seen during aging" is also an easy claim to make--but much more difficult to follow through on. The problem is that you can't even began to make such a promise--aging is not caused by weightlessness (although I assume that NASA is implying that parallel processes might be at work).
The claim that weightless animals are a good model for aging humans seems a bit far flung at best! In fact, any result of the Bion Program must be suspect if we wish to apply it to humans--this is a problem for all animal-related data. This is even a problem for data applied across different animal breeds, different sexes, different human races, and different ages--much less entirely different species. Data taken directly from human subjects is clearly far superior.
Can we learn everything we wish to learn without funding the Bion Program? This is an open question--anyone who claims that we can't is simply being unscientific--I know of no scientific question that is approachable by only one set of experiments. (Although I'm sure that there are cases in which, so far, only one way is known.) More importantly, the question (given at the beginning of this paragraph) can be asked of any program. But there are many nonessential things we just don't get to learn, for now, because we don't have the money--it's a question of priorities.
Suppose we were to accept the present misguided emphasis on human space travel. The bottom line is that the Bion Program obviously costs a lot of money, is too large in scope, overlaps a lot of other programs (at least to a substantial, if not great, degree), has ethical problems and is not essential (because of overlap and because of present knowledge). At the same time, research with greater potential--even essential research--is being ignored (inside and outside of the space agency). We should concentrate a lot more on the possible ill effects of solid-rocket boosters (they are still an problem) and other safety issues than the effects of weightlessness. Choices must be made--the Bion Program is a poor one.
And, for those of us who don't accept the present emphasis on human space travel, the Bion Program becomes an even clearer poor choice of expenditures.
Write your representative at: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington,
DC 20515. You can contact your senator at: U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
20510 (or call the Capitol Hill switchboard number, 202-224-3121. Better
yet, click here for your senators
As a popular news show says, it's your money.
Homepage Email (Please report bad links!)
Copyright 1996, David Lee Winston Miller. This document may be reproduced in any form provided that it is reproduced in its entirety and is properly credited. This page has been accessed times since 11-07-96.