On July 24, 1969, the first two humans to set foot on the Moon returned to Earh with a bag of rocks and dirt. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin claimed (at least publicly) that they saw no life forms on Earth’s satellite during their brief stay, NASA engineers had read enough science fiction to err on the side of caution and developed a complex quarantine system to hopefully prevent any living thing the astronauts may have brought back with them from escaping and contaminating – or worse, conquering – Earth. That didn’t happen – although NASA is upset that an auction house is selling moon dust that was fed to and excreted from roaches to check for contaminants … more on that later – but the space agency has admitted it is extremely concerned about upcoming missions to Mars to pick up Martian rocks and dirt … will they contain Martian life forms that contaminate or conquer Earth? Has NASA’s quarantine technology improved over 50 years? What if life forms are brought to Earth … should they be taken back? Should we be concerned that NASA is suddenly concerned about this?
“The PEIS (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement) will provide information related to the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed return of Mars samples to Earth for scientific analysis. Potential impacts to be analyzed in the PEIS include those associated with ground disturbance from landing site preparation, and sample vehicle landing and recovery efforts with respect to natural, biological and cultural resources. NASA will also assess potential impacts to the human and natural environment associated with loss of containment of Mars sample materials.”
Believe it or not, the target date for sending a lander to Mars to pick up samples currently being collected by the rover Perseverance is just ten years away and NASA Is only now issuing a “NASA Mars Sample Return Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement - Tier I.” That means it has not yet begun to build the facility where the samples will be taken … let alone developed a plan to pick it up after it is dropped by parachute (or worse, crashes) in a remote location and transport it to the lab. It seems as though some engineers are more excited about how they’ll divide up the samples rather that how to protect humanity from any Martian stowaways.
“In the first place, we don’t know everything we want to know about Mars. That’s why we want the samples. We keep finding Earth organisms doing new things that are quite interesting from the standpoint of potential life elsewhere. So why don’t we think we need to be careful? The answer is that we do need to be careful, as repeatedly emphasized by the National [Academies].... People have to have some kind of respect for the unknown.”
In an interview with Scientific American, John Rummel, a retired astrobiologist who previously ran NASA’s “planetary protection” program for interplanetary missions, warns that cutting costs by building a simple storage and research facility may make budgetary sense but not provide protection from samples containing life forms. Since this is the last step of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign, it seems to be last in line for funds as well as engineers to make it a foolproof containment facility. Comments on a public NASA forum, where the documents concerning MSR are available for perusal, sound concerned at best, but mostly terrified.
“Are you out of your minds? Not just no, but hell no.”
“No nation should put the whole planet at risk.”
“Public opposition will surely rise drastically as the knowledge of [NASA’s] intentions are spread beyond the smaller space community.”
Spoken like true concerned citizens and sci-fi fans, which may explain why Steven Benner, a prominent astrobiologist, pooh-poohed the comments to Scientific American, pointing out that Earth has for millions of years been bombarded by space rocks knocked off of Mars when it is hit by meteors. It is disconcerting that he doesn’t give us credit for noting that those rocks spent time in the cold expanse of space between Mars and Earth, then made a fiery life-scorching entry and life-smashing crash landing. That is far from delivering sealed samples on a space ship that will ideally make a soft landing on Earth. Astrobiologist Barry DiGregorio, founding director of the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR), thinks the entire world should be concerned, especially now that China is also bringing samples back.
“Unless [returning samples from Mars] is done as a global effort in order to share the findings in real time with all spacefaring nations instead of as a national goal, no single country will know what the other has found or what problems they are having with containment.”
DiGregorio proposes a dedicated orbiting lab or space station where every sample is opened and tested before bringing it into Earth’s biosphere – even under the most stringent conditions. He also believes getting spacefaring nations to cooperate during the present geopolitical conditions will be difficult, and he also believes costs should be a lesser consideration. That was the case in the original space race to the Moon – a time when the Cold War helped feed military money and personnel into the space program. It was evident in the recovery and quarantine procedures for Apollo 11.
The astronauts were given biological isolation garments (BIG) and rubbed down with a sodium hypochlorite solution, while the capsule was wiped with Povidone-iodine – the raft containing decontamination materials was intentionally sunk – OK, not exactly biofriendly in today’s world but this was 1969. The astronauts stayed in the BIGs until entering the Mobile quarantine facility (MQF) where they stayed for most of their 21-day quarantine. The Columbia capsule was moved next to the MQF and attached to it, allowing the lunar samples and other items to be removed. All of this was dictated by the Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law, a set of quarantine regulations implemented by NASA.
“I found no evidence of infectious agents.”
While the astronauts were released, the lunar samples remained under quarantine as they were examined. One test that coincidentally popped up in the news this week involved feeding some of the more than 47 pounds (21.3 kg) of lunar rock to roaches, other insects, fish and other small creatures to see if it would kill them. The cockroaches were under the watchful eye of entomologist Marion Brooks at the University of Minnesota, where she dissected and studied them, eventually ruling that the moon dust did them no harm. Once deemed safe, AP reports that Brook’s took them home and put them on display. Her daughter sold them in 2010, and they’re up for auction again. However, NASA claims that Brooks took them without authorization and they must be returned. Based on similar instances in the past, NASA will probably win this case and get its roaches back.
Just like in 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission, protecting Earth from life forms brought from other planets and moons is serious business – potentially threatening all life as we know it. Shouldn’t NASA be given the funding it needs to do this last step yet most critical part of its job?
Do you really want the job of protecting our planet from Martians to go to the lowest bidder?