Planetary Protection and Its Applicability to the Private Sector

I was going to title this “Does Planetary Protection Apply to the Private Sector?” However, various corners of the internet mock the use of questions in headlines, so I was too chicken. But, at the end of the day—or perhaps of the century—that is the question; and in the United States the answer must come from Congress.

Background Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty provides that States Parties must pursue their studies and explorations so as to avoid “harmful contamination” of the moon and other celestial bodies and “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.” As a science agency that is part of the U.S. Government, NASA has interpreted this to mean that its missions must not only avoid what the ordinary person might consider harmful contamination, but microbial contamination as well, limiting the presence of bacterial spores on any surface to no more than 300,000. Accordingly, NASA requires the sterilization of its spacecraft to avoid bringing microorganisms to Mars. ESA, the European Space Agency, follows similar measures.

These measures are expensive. ESA describes the creation of clean rooms. NASA bakes its spacecraft. The space agencies spend money on preparing protocols, training technicians, sampling, testing, and devising new and more stringent requirements. Although it is difficult to find information about the costs of planetary protection, one expedition cost somewhere between $80 to $100 million in 2003 dollars.

People are full of microorganisms. I’m no biologist, but I think there are far more than 300,000 bacterial spores on the surface of the human body, never mind what’s inside us. Are we planning to prohibit people on Mars? Probably not. I hope not.

The question does, however, highlight the existence of competing interests. Science agencies want to do science. They have interpreted the directive against “harmful contamination” to mean no harmful contamination to science. The space agencies have now had decades to perform their scientific studies and exploration, and others, including commercial actors, are interested in going to Mars as well. This means that other human interests aside from science will take the stage. Those interests may range from space settlement, with its attendant needs for air, agriculture (albeit in high-tech greenhouses), and manufacturing, to tourism, leisure, art, and mining.

The Issue

These interests are not obviously less important than the question of whether there is life on Mars. That’s an important issue, even if the life found is less complex than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tars Tarkas. The question is, who decides?

Congress decides. Continue reading