When the space shuttle Colombia
lifted off in late April it carried 2,000 animals onboard as part of NASA’s
Neurolab research project aimed at studying the effects of microgravity
on the nervous systems of animals. The payload consisted of 152 rats,
18 pregnant mice, 229 swordtail fish, 135 snails and 1,514 crickets. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
had numerous complaints about these experiments.
PETA voiced numerous complaints
about Neurolab — the silliest that “more than 6,000 ‘surplus’ rodents
were used as food for alligators on commercial farms, snakes in pet stores,
and prey for raptors at wildlife rehabilitation centers.” News flash
to PETA — alligators, snakes and raptors regularly kill or maim and
then eat other animals as a matter of course. Apparently PETA needs
to redouble its efforts to convert alligators to veganism.
PETA was also angered by reports
that over half of the baby rats onboard died from maternal neglect. NASA
scientists expected only a few deaths during the mission, but as PETA
put it, “more than 50% of the baby rats have already cruelly been
allowed to starve to death on Neurolab.” In fact astronauts worked
hard to save many of the baby rats who had been abandoned by their mothers.
Finally, PETA’s other major complaint
was that the experiments were completely unnecessary. As PETA put it in
a press release, “The Neurolab experiments are worthless … NASA
has 40 years’ worth of clinical and epidemiological studies on astronauts.
The database from these studies is far more valuable than anything we
could ever hope to learn from stressed out animals in space.” While
nobody disputes the value of data collected from astronauts, there is
still much about the effects of microgravity to be learned
from the Neurolab experiments, with its thousands of animals (which provides a much large sample than the handful of people who have ventured into space).
The most obvious example is the
baby rats that PETA was so concerned about. All of the astronaut data
is on mature adults. The point of putting baby rats in space was to study
the effects of microgravity on neural development. Neurolab’s Mammalian
Development Team will study the baby rats to measure “the effects
of microgravity on developing, maturing neural pathways, according
to a NASA press release.
The Adult Neuroplasticity Team, meanwhile, will
study the neurons of the mature animals to see how well they are able
“to sense and reorganize themselves after being introduced to microgravity,
thus adapting to the animal’s new environment.” Other experiments
will study the effects of microgravity on the internal clocks of rodents
to see how it effects the circadian rhythms of the animals.
such studies will help scientists better understand clinical conditions
such as vertigo and dizziness that affect millions of people. The studies
of circadian rhythms will provide important data for studying such disorders
as jet lag, insomnia and mental disorders such as winter depression.
PETA’s constant refrain that because
some data about a phenomenon exist, therefore any further data collection
is unnecessary, shows a rank ignorance about scientific investigations.
Reuters News Service “Death toll for space shuttle rats unexpectedly high”
April 27, 1998.
Pauline Arrillaga “Rats continue to die aboard space shuttle” The
Associated Press April 28, 1998.
PETA “NASA’s Cruel Neurolab Experiments” Press Release April 1998.
NASA “Neurolab” Press Release April 1998.