Looking for some good news? You came to the wrong place, but stay anyway because this is the kind of bad news we’re getting early enough to fully prepare for – if not prevent entirely. We’re talking about viruses, of course … in particular, the next deadly virus. A former NASA director has released a new paper warning that the next killer virus may not come from bats … unless there are bats on Mars. His concern, one he claims is shared by many in the space program, is that spaceships returning from Mars may be filled with humans and rocks covered with a super-virus the likes of which have never been seen on Earth. Can we prevent them? Can we prepare? Do we need some bigger masks?
“In my opinion, and that of the science community, the chance that rocks from Mars that are millions of years old will contain an active life form that could infect Earth is extremely low. But, the samples returned by MSR will be quarantined and treated as though they are the Ebola virus until proven safe.”
The mass media reports on the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 have overshadowed the Ebola virus, which attacks faster (within two days of exposure) and is extremely deadly (killing 25% to 90% of those infected, with an average of about 50%), which makes its usage as a reference by Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA Ames and current adjunct professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, disconcerting at the very least. In an interview with Stanford News about a new paper -- co-authored by Hubbard and published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – Hubbard warns about the dangers posed by space missions in general and Mars missions in particular … particularly those returning to Earth with samples and humans exposed to the Martian environment. (MSR a proposed Martian Sample Return mission of which the Perseverance Rover is a part.)
“Past missions with large budgets – such as Viking I and II to Mars in the mid-1970s – were able to use heat to sterilize whole spacecraft. That approach is not possible today for a variety of reasons.”
Hubbard talks about the “bioburden” of keeping Earth microbes and diseases from contaminating another planet or asteroid (called ‘forward contamination’) but his main focus is on ‘back contamination’. He describes one plan to “break the chain of contact” between the returning spacecraft and Mars rock samples with autonomous sealing and welding to create multiple levels of containment. Hubbard notes that “the Apollo astronauts from the first few moon missions were quarantined to ensure they showed no signs of illness” until NASA felt there were not harmful contaminants on the Moon. The process must be initiated again for Mars missions. He thinks his old agency can handle NASA missions, but he’s very concerned about the FAA and private space companies.
“The complication is that NASA is a mission agency with huge PP expertise but not a regulatory agency like the Federal Aviation Administration, which has little PP knowledge but issues licenses for commercial launches.”
Hubbard is very concerned about forward contaminations and “planetary protection (PP)” as well, and shows his disdain for these private space companies – one in particular:
“This phrase refers primarily to space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (SpaceX), who launched his own cherry red Tesla Roadster to a Mars-like orbit around the sun aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. We need some way of knowing whether they are following appropriate PP procedures.”
That also includes privately-launched tiny cubesats. What goes up may come down – sometimes on Earth but, as these tiny satellites and especially laser light sails become more common, potentially on other planets or asteroids. While the FAA might be able to regulate these companies in the U.S., it has no control over those in other countries.
The report was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, so Hubbard addresses it in the interview, noting that the paper has “a small section suggesting that NASA and a recommended new advisory group take a very proactive approach toward educating the public about the extraordinary measures being taken to sequester the returned samples and protect the public.”
Hubbard's concerns and warnings are commendable and needed. However, based on how little we've been informed about COVID-19 prevention, potential treatments and possible (if any) vaccines, does anyone feel comfortable about any agency’s (public or private) ability (or obligation or desire) to “educate the public”?
Asking for a lot of friends.