Solar system exploration is in an extraordinary state of expansion. Scientific capabilities to search for evidence of extant or relic life outside Earth—among the principal goals of solar system exploration—are advancing rapidly. The long-desired science objective of returning samples from Mars is coming within reach, provided that the NASA Mars 2020 mission can cache samples for return by later missions. In addition, recent discoveries concerning the presence of substantial bodies of liquid water beneath the icy crusts of satellites of the giant planets offer new venues for studies relating to the origins of life and prebiotic evolution. New entrants in the commercial or entrepreneurial space sector may be able to orbit the Moon or land on Mars without the level of involvement that the U.S. government has historically had in space exploration. Finally, the dream of sending humans to Mars may occur within a time frame relevant to today’s stakeholders and the public. Thus, missions once considered far in the future are now appearing in relatively near-term planning horizons.
In this time of rapid transition in exploring solar system bodies, the importance of reexamining planetary protection policies, including the need for clarity in how NASA establishes such policies, has become more urgent. Against this backdrop, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld asked the Space Studies Board to review the current state of planetary protection policy development, assess the responsiveness of the policy development process to contemporary and anticipated needs, and recommend actions that might assure the effectiveness of NASA’s future coordination and execution of planetary protection. (See Appendix A for the full task statement for this study and Appendix B for biographies of the committee members.) The study will review the process by which NASA currently sets policies, but it will not propose new planetary protection policies. However, given the charter to evaluate the future of the planetary protection policy-making process, as well as “barriers, challenges and quality control principles,” the final report is likely to touch upon the methods of implementation as well as roles and responsibilities.
After the study was initiated, but prior to the committee’s first meeting, Dr. Grunsfeld’s successor, Thomas Zurbuchen, asked the study committee to prepare an interim report focusing on the goals of and rationales for planetary protection policies and suggest a working definition of planetary protection consistent with those goals. The statement of task for the interim report can be found at the end of Appendix A. This report addresses Dr. Zurbuchen’s interim task.