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ISDC speech
A screen capture from a video of NASA administrator Charles Bolden's speech shows him being interrupted by an unidentified young woman.

Return to the Planet of the Apes

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Man, I miss all the good stuff…

On the evening of Friday, May 28, I was sitting in my hotel room at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) checking on email and reading. Meanwhile, down in the hotel ballroom, NASA administrator Charles Bolden had just taken the stage to give a post-dinner talk when a woman strode purposely up to the podium and grabbed a microphone and started berating Bolden and NASA about… (wait for it) monkey research.

All things considered, it doesn’t take much bravery for a pretty young woman to rush a US Marine. But it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to upstage a speaker on their home turf.

Bolden’s initial look was a rather bemused confusion. “NASA needs to scrap plans to fund cruel and wasteful experiments on monkeys,” she said. “Stop wasting taxpayers’ dollars on wasteful experiments. Shame on you, Charles Bolden! NASA needs to stop animal experiments. Stop testing on monkeys.” A man at the front of the room, probably one of the conference organizers, walked up and took the microphone away from her, took her firmly by the arm, and led her from the stage.

ISDC speech
The protestor commandeers the microphone and asks that NASA stop “cruel and wasteful experiments on monkeys”.

All things considered, it doesn’t take much bravery for a pretty young woman to rush a US Marine. But it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to upstage a speaker on their home turf. On the video of the event, members of the audience can be heard yelling things at the woman as she was being escorted out.

Bolden was a gentleman and handled the crowd’s response expertly. “Hold on, hold on,” Bolden said. “One of the good things about the country in which we live… and one of the things I wore my uniform—I’m still a United States Marine,” he said, to applause. “And one of the things that I have always told my Marines when I was among them on active duty was that we may not always agree with everything that we’re asked to do, we may not agree with everyone that we’re asked to protect, but in the United States of America we serve the Constitution. We don’t serve an individual. I have served presidents that I have despised. I happen to serve a president right now that I admire and respect, for a number of different reasons but I won’t go into that. But the young lady had every right to express herself—maybe not that way, but this is probably the only country in the world in which she could do that.”

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The protestor is led from the stage.

This is not the first time that somebody has taken aim at NASA for monkey research. The early space program involved launches of both monkeys and chimpanzees, garnering some criticism from animal welfare groups. A 1985 Spacelab mission aboard the shuttle Challenger included two squirrel monkeys, drawing criticism as well. But NASA has come under more recent fire for some renewed monkey research. Last fall, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) held a small, rather lame bit of street theater outside NASA headquarters. I photographed the event and wrote about it. (See: “Gorilla theater,” The Space Review, November 23, 2009.)

This is not the first time that an ISDC dinner event has gotten a little, well, weird.

PETA officials later said that while the person was a member of the organization, she was “acting on her own volition and the action was done independent of the organization.” But PETA still hasn’t quite figured this protest thing out. What was the point of her little stunt? Could it have influenced anybody in the room? Anybody at all? A more imaginative, and perhaps humorous, effort would have had bigger effect. A group of protestors dressed as apes and dancing in front of the stage would have gotten more attention. She apparently had somebody in the audience filming her, but that person was poorly-placed, and all they got was a rather boring bit of footage. If she wanted to have greater effect, perhaps even change some peoples’ minds (imagine that), she could have passed out leaflets during the conference itself. Instead, all she did was do something a little goofy at an ISDC dinner, which turns out to be not that unusual.

ISDC speech
Bolden, after the protestor is removed, calms the audience.

This is not the first time that an ISDC dinner event has gotten a little, well, weird. A few years ago, when ISDC was meeting in Washington, DC, I also skipped the dinner. The keynote speaker then was Burt Rutan. Rutan’s competency is engineering, not climatology. Nevertheless, he decided to start ranting about what he considers to be the myth of global warming, an incident that at least some in the audience found rather embarrassing. Also at that conference, Pluto’s arch nemesis and media gadfly Neil deGrasse Tyson made a comment about how the space community’s obsession with repeating Apollo was akin to “necrophilia.” Soon after he said this, Buzz Aldrin left the room, feigning illness. He later reportedly told people that he simply couldn’t stand being in the room with deGrasse Tyson after his comment. (Tyson was lucky: Buzz could have punched him.)

So PETA got a little bit of publicity, but not much. All the event did was point out who was the adult on the stage. But I did learn one thing from this woman’s stunt: next time I go to the ISDC, I’m not skipping the dinner theater.