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Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations
lunar sample-return program, overseeing the broad and diverse issues related to planetary protection.
Retrospective analyses of the Apollo program have identified numerous shortcomings in areas related to planetary protection and quarantine activities despite the helpful advice and guidance of the ICBC. In addition to the scientific and technical problems encountered, organizational and managerial shortcomings compromised the effectiveness of planetary protection measures during the lunar sample-return program. In particular, planetary protection measures were repeatedly overridden by program managers in order to keep the mission on schedule and to maximize the safety and comfort of the crew (Mahoney, 1976).
MARS SAMPLE-RETURN PROGRAM
A Mars sample-return program will differ from the lunar program in a number of key respects. Geopolitical considerations are not likely to figure as prominently in a Mars exploration program as they did in the lunar exploration program, and a Mars sample-return mission will be robotic, not crewed. Most importantly, the consensus among the scientific community at the time of Apollo was that the lunar surface was almost certainly sterile—the same cannot be said of Mars (see Chapter 2). Thus, from a scientific viewpoint, planetary protection is more critical with respect to a Mars mission than it was with the lunar missions, and, from an operational viewpoint, it should be more easily implemented.
For Mars sample-return missions it will be necessary for NASA to interact in a timely manner with appropriate governmental and scientific bodies to coordinate regulatory responsibilities and seek advice regarding planetary protection measures. To formally ensure that such coordinated oversight and advice are obtained, an advisory body similar to the ICBC would be helpful in a broad range of areas, such as clarification of legal issues; coordination of regulatory responsibilities; oversight of the planning and development of a suitable sample-receiving facility; and oversight of recovery, transportation, and quarantine of the sample material, including review and approval of protocols and analyses used to determine whether samples are in any way hazardous. Considering the breadth and complexity of these tasks, it would be desirable to establish this coordinating group as early as possible in mission planning. Planetary protection measures will be most effective and least costly if they are designed into the mission from its inception, rather than treated as an add-on later.
Recommendation. 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 one year prior to the establishment of the sample-receiving facility (at least three years prior to launch).