Piggybacking off of the release of the National Space Policy, the White House recently came out with their National Strategy for Planetary Protection, a 16-page document that covers the policies and practices expected in protecting the Earth’s biosphere from harmful biological contamination which could occur by returning spacecraft.
As NASA and other private-sector space entities plan further missions to the Moon, to Mars, and other potential destinations throughout our galaxy, setting firm guidelines on returning spaceships and what they bring with them will be key in protecting humans across our globe. True, our Earth’s Moon has been deemed non-hazardous and thusly unrestricted since 1971, so there isn’t much worry concerning that. But with many in the private sector looking to venture into space and other planetary bodies with the goal of collecting and bringing back samples of places we have yet to fully study, the concern for harmful substances is real.
The rules set forth by the Planetary Protection Interagency Working Group were done with one goal in mind – “to assess, coordinate, and implement national priorities regarding the prevention of potentially harmful biological contamination in the exploration of other planetary bodies.” With that in mind, their strategy was brought forth by three objectives which dealt with forward contamination (other planetary bodies), backward contamination (Earth), and private sector coordination. These are, per the NATIONAL STRATEGY FOR PLANETARY PROTECTION:
Objective 1: Avoid harmful forward contamination by developing and implementing risk assessment and science-based guidelines and updating the interagency payload review process.
Objective 2: Avoid backward contamination by developing a Restricted Return Program to protect against adverse effects on the Earth environment due to the potential return of extraterrestrial life.
Objective 3: Incorporate the perspective and needs of the private sector by soliciting feedback and developing guidelines regarding private sector activities with potential planetary protection implications.
The creation and application of this Planetary Protection are in no way to discourage further space exploration by either our government or the private sector but as a way of balancing the promotion of further exploration and the safety of the public. The U.S. can continue to promote scientific discovery, human exploration, and growth of the private space sector as well as showing major consideration toward public safety. It also shows that the United States continues to be the leader in not only space exploration but also in the development of the policies and practices that are accepted internationally.
This strategy is not a new policy but serves as a blueprint on how the government plans to address future explorations whether it be by the government or the private sector. “Really it’s a work plan,” said an unidentified administration official via SpaceNews. “It’s a strategy laying out work that’s going to be done over the next nine months to a year.”
Perhaps this new Planetary Protection document is in response to NASA’s noted issue with their own rules toward Planetary Protection. The agency has recently been updating its policies toward protecting the planet. In July, NASA announced it was issuing new directives that reclassified most of the Moon into a lower category which requires no planetary protection as well as figuring out how to make planetary protection guidelines fit into their future human missions to the Red Planet. As the unnamed administration official said, “We’re very fine with what NASA has done, but the problem is that the NASA rules and interim directives don’t really apply to the private sector. We’re trying to find ways so that people can go forward, but to do so safely.”
This new strategy presented by the White House is also using the expertise from other respected agencies. They include Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as several Cabinet-level departments that include Commerce and State to Agriculture and Health and Human Services, most of whom were brought online to help support the work on backward contamination. The chatty unidentified official remarked, “It’s a great opportunity to bring in departments and agencies who may not have worked together on this issue historically but are very excited to be doing so now.”
With the number of Mars exploration ventures planned for the near future and various other planet plans, having a strong set of ground rules is not only safe, but a smart way to head into our future.