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Monkey Space Mission Uncertain

The controversial U.S.-Russian space biology project known as Bion faces delays because of problems with finding a launch vehicle in Russia. ``The fate of Bion is hanging in midair,'' says one Russian company official.

Bion was slated to send two monkeys into orbit for experiments in September. The mission drew heavy fire from U.S. animal-rights activists and Congress this year, who argued that Bion's research value didn't justify sending monkeys into space. But what has really hurt Bion is Russia's economy. Launchers are a precious commodity in this cash-strapped country, and Russia relies on launchers for communications satellites and supply missions for the Mir space station.

The official launch date is now 30 October, but mid-November seems more likely. NASA had said it would oppose a launch after September because the cold weather on the Kazakhstan steppes--where the capsule with the monkeys is to land--could hurt the animals. But Joseph Bielitzky, NASA's chief veterinarian, says the Russians have now convinced the U.S. side that frozen ground and bright snow might aid recovery of the capsule, minimizing the risks to its passengers. Critics at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, say NASA's acceptance of the schedule change shows contempt for the monkeys' welfare.

Cold weather isn't the only problem. After the first of the year, the growing monkeys may become too heavy for the capsule. That would mean Bion's managers will have to find a new pair of animals, train them, and do the surgery required to implant monitoring devices before the flight could be rescheduled, Bielitzky says.