This is not new news, but it’s interesting to consider in the context of concerns anyone may have over whether human settlement would upend NASA’s planetary protection policy. The one is a law. The other is just a policy.
Congress has told NASA that the agency’s long-term goals must enable the extension of a human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and into the solar system, “including potential human habitation on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st Century.” 42 U.S.C. § 18312. More explicitly, Congress told NASA to work toward eventual “human habitation on the surface of Mars. 51 U.S.C. §70504(b). No, I don’t know why it has to be on the surface. Yes, underground might be safer, but linguistic overindulgence in the drafting of laws requires a separate analysis of its own.
As a science agency that is part of the U.S. Government, NASA has interpreted Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty to mean that the agency’s missions must not only avoid what the ordinary person might consider harmful contamination—no toxins, no Agent Orange, no peanuts on the aircraft—but microbial contamination as well. NASA tries to limit the presence of bacterial spores on any out-bound surface to no more than 300,000. Accordingly, NASA requires the sterilization of its spacecraft to avoid bringing microorganisms to Mars. The European Space Agency follows similar measures.
People are covered in bacteria, but the law says NASA must work to enable a human presence on Mars. It might be time to recognize that a Congressional mandate overrides an agency policy.