The third part of the 1997 recommendation concerned the roles and responsibilities of the SRF’s staff: “The facility should be staffed by a multidisciplinary team of scientists responsible for the development and validation of procedures for detection, preliminary characterization, and containment of organisms (living, dead, or fossil) in the returned samples and for sample sterilization” (p. 5). The present committee concurs with this recommendation.
Recommendation: A sample-receiving facility should employ multidisciplinary teams of scientists to develop, validate, and perform a rigorous battery of tests that will be used to determine whether and when unsterilized materials returned from Mars may be approved for controlled distribution, or full release from containment.
The final part of the NRC’s 1997 recommendation concerning an SRF dealt with scientific oversight: “An advisory panel of scientists should be constituted with oversight responsibilities for the facility” (p. 5). The committee concurs with this recommendation, but in addition recommends including technical issues relating to an SRF within the oversight committee’s terms of reference. The committee’s independence should also be specified.
Recommendation: An independent science and technical advisory committee should be constituted with oversight responsibilities for materials returned by a Mars sample return mission.
In addition to a science and technical advisory committee for the SRF, the NRC’s 1997 Mars report saw a need for a higher-level group charged with oversight of all planetary protection requirements associated with Mars sample return: “A panel of experts, including representatives of relevant governmental and scientific bodies, should be established as soon as possible once serious planning for a Mars sample-return mission has begun, to coordinate regulatory responsibilities and to advise NASA on the implementation of planetary protection measures for sample-return missions. The panel should be in place at least 1 year prior to the establishment of the sample-receiving facility ([i.e.,] at least 3 years prior to launch)” (pp. 5-6). The present committee does not believe that this recommendation is appropriate given the potential conflicts between planetary protection concerns and scientific or operational concerns inherent in NASA’s current advisory structure. There is a critical need for the PPS, or its equivalent, and also for the office of the NASA planetary protection officer to be formally situated within NASA in a way that will allow for the verification and certification of adherence to all planetary protection requirements at each stage of a Mars sample return mission, including launch, re-entry and landing, transport to an SRF, sample testing, and sample distribution. Clear lines of accountability and authority at the appropriate levels within NASA should be established for both the PPS (or an equivalent group) and the planetary protection officer, in order to maintain accountability and avoid any conflict of interest with science and mission efforts.
Recommendation: To ensure independent oversight throughout the lengthy and complex process of planning and implementing a Mars sample return mission, planetary protection policy and regulatory oversight for all aspects of sample return should be provided by both the Planetary Protection Subcommittee (or an equivalent group) and the NASA planetary protection officer, each having suitable authority and accountability at an appropriate administrative level within NASA.
Finally, the NRC’s 1997 Mars report recommended that: “Throughout any sample-return program, the public should be openly informed of plans, activities, results, and associated issues” (p. 6). The present committee concurs with this recommendation and believes that it is also important to explicitly extend the policy of openness to encompass both the sample return mission and the construction, testing, and operation of an SRF.
Recommendation: The public should be informed about all aspects of Mars sample return, beginning with the earliest stages of mission planning and continuing throughout construction, testing, and operation of a sample-receiving facility.