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It's good to see NASA getting back into the old spirit of space exploration these days. After years of settling for what are essentially low orbit field trips, the space agency is not only setting sights back on the moon, it's reintroducing the neglected trade of doing strange and unusual things to moneys for science.

NASA will now be exposing 18 to 28 squirrel monkeys to low doses of daily radiation to better understand effects of long-term exposure outside Earth's protective magnetic shield, Discovery News reports. It's the first time NASA has experimented on monkeys in decades.

Space boffins are particularly eager to discover how the type of radiation that astronauts would encounter on trips to distant planets will impact the central nervous systems and behaviors of the monkeys. NASA has been irradiating rats and mice like gangbusters, of course, but nothing says science quite like the smell of over-exposed simian.

"Obviously, the closer we get to man, the better," said Eleanor Blakely, a biophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to Discovery.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley lab are now training squirrel monkeys to carry out various behavioral tasks. Once they get comfortable, they'll be shipped to NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory in New York and exposed to varying levels of radiation to see what happens.

NASA said the monkeys will not be killed and will retire to McLean Hospital in Boston where veterinarians and staff will oversee the animals for the remainder of their lives.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger carried two monkeys up to space in 1985, NASA has largely left out our simian friends from the field of space exploration. This gap sadly left Russia with a decades-long lead on the USA in the field of simian rocket science. But the commencement of monkey radiation studies leaves hope that these noble beasts may regain their place as cosmic pilgrims in the name of American science. ®

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