Protecting Earth’s environment and other solar system bodies from harmful contamination has been an important principle throughout the history of space exploration. For decades, the scientific, political, and economic conditions of space exploration converged in ways that contributed to effective development and implementation of planetary protection policies at national and international levels. Advances in scientific knowledge have, in general, permitted planetary protection requirements to be adapted or substantially simplified for certain solar system bodies (e.g., the Moon, Venus, and Mercury) so that only missions to those few bodies thought to be capable of harboring extinct or extant life, or processes relevant to prebiotic chemistry, needed to apply planetary protection measures beyond documentation. Whether or not this trend will continue as the exploration of Mars and the so-called Ocean Worlds of the outer solar system progresses remains to be seen.
Only a few spacefaring nations and international organizations have engaged in solar system exploration, with the United States being the largest player and a key international leader in the development of planetary protection policies and procedures. From an economic perspective, spacefaring nations accepted the costs of planetary protection measures in government-sponsored space exploration, and private-sector enterprises did not undertake missions that implicated planetary protection. During the Apollo era, the NASA budget peaked at about 4 percent of the federal budget, and space exploration was a national security priority. Consequently, cost did not pose limitations to prudent planetary protection requirements.
However, the future of space exploration will likely not see the same convergence of factors and will, instead, create serious challenges to the development and implementation of planetary protection policy. The most disruptive changes are associated with (1) sample return from, and human missions to, Mars and (2) missions to those bodies in the outer solar system possessing water oceans beneath their icy surfaces. In addition, by the mid-1970s, NASA lost its special national priority, and budgets have hovered around 0.5 percent of federal spending ever since. Space missions of ever-increasing complexity have to grapple with cost caps.
In response to a request from NASA, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Committee to Review the Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes to examine the history of planetary protection policy, assess the current policy development process, and recommend actions to improve the policy development process in the future.
Readers interested in the specific aspects of the report are directed to the following chapters or to the more extensive guide at the end of Chapter 1:
- Working definition of planetary protection and its goals—Chapter 1
- Historical context for planetary protection—Chapter 2
- Current policy development process—Chapter 3
- Challenges posed by future human and robotic missions to Mars—Chapters 4 and 5
- Challenges posed by private-sector activities in space—Chapter 6
- Future of the policy development process—Chapters 5 and 7
The committee concludes that the following fundamental elements of planetary protection policy remain relevant and vital:
- The Outer Space Treaty (OST), as the policy and legal foundation for both government-sponsored and nongovernment planetary missions;
- The role of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in fostering international cooperation in the development of planetary protection guidelines;1
- The need for science-based decision making;
- The involvement of a wide-range of scientific communities; and
- U.S. leadership in planetary protection policy making.
However, the current planetary protection policy development process is inadequate to respond to progressively more complex solar system exploration missions, especially in an environment of significant programmatic constraints.
GENERAL ADVICE TO NASA CONCERNING PLANETARY PROTECTION
Today’s planetary protection policies and policy development process have been forced to grapple with issues not seen since the Viking Mars landers and Apollo Moon landings. In addition, they are facing much greater challenges as NASA and other national and international space agencies move forward on the Mars Sample Return campaign, exploration of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and human landings on Mars. Shortcomings in adapting legacy planetary protection policy for modern-day life detection missions began with the Mars Science Laboratory project, and they have become even more apparent with recent difficulties with the Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper projects in negotiating formal, executable, and affordable requirements. Therefore, as a first step in preparing effectively for this new environment, the committee recommends that NASA, under the direction of the Office of the Administrator, should develop a planetary protection strategic plan that clearly addresses the agency’s approach for the following:2
- Managing planetary protection policy implementation,
- Securing relevant outside expert advice,
- Developing a long-range forecast of future solar system exploration missions having planetary protection implications,
- Setting planetary protection research and technology investment priorities, and
- Identifying the agency’s strategy for dealing with major policy issues such as sample return and human missions to Mars and private-sector solar system exploration missions.
1 COSPAR is a scientific organization established by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in 1958 “to promote at an international level scientific research in space, with emphasis on the exchange of results, information and opinions, and to provide a forum, open to all scientists, for the discussion of problems that may affect scientific space research. The objectives of COSPAR are to be achieved through the organization of scientific assemblies, publications, or any other means.” Although it is not formally associated with the United Natons (UN), COSPAR does organize scientific symposia on behalf of and provide information and advice to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. For more about COSPAR, see https://cosparhq.cnes.fr.
As a key step in managing the future development of planetary protection policies, the committee recommends that NASA assess the completeness of planetary protection policies and initiate a process to formally define the planetary protection requirements that are missing. NASA should ensure that all future headquarters’ planetary protection requirements imposed on spaceflight missions follow NASA standard project management and systems engineering protocols for review, approval, and flow-down of requirements and, when disagreements occur, ensure that NASA’s conflict-resolution process is followed. For future new situations, such as private-sector missions to other bodies or human exploration of Mars, the policies and their potential impacts should be evaluated and examined well in advance of a mission start.3
In addition, all parts of NASA need to be aware of proposed changes to COSPAR policies, given the latter’s role in maintaining the de facto, international consensus planetary protection policy. Therefore, the committee recommends that NASA should ensure that in assessing changes to COSPAR planetary protection policies and requirements there is a process to engage the full breadth of NASA stakeholders, including the spaceflight mission and science communities. This process should be at least as disciplined as the process NASA uses to review, concur, and approve changes to its own policies.4
ADVICE TO NASA CONCERNING THE OFFICE OF PLANETARY PROTECTION
In managing the execution of policy, NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection (OPP) currently has several conflicting duties: formulating policy, implementing policy, and ensuring policy compliance. Concerns remain over whether new policy will be developed with an eye toward minimizing conflict of interest while also instituting proper oversight and review of the decisions of the OPP. Future policies need a clear conflict resolution path in the case where disagreements exist. The committee recommends that NASA expeditiously complete the transition of the OPP to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) and clarify the remaining issues concerning roles, responsibilities, resources, and locations of OPP functions. The chief of OSMA should complete the Science Mission Directorate’s move toward instituting a formal method for imposing planetary protection requirements that are in accordance with standard NASA systems engineering practices.5 As part of the transition of the OPP to OSMA, NASA should evaluate the European Space Agency process for planetary protection implementation and strongly consider incorporating the elements of that process that are effective and appropriate.6
The development of planetary protection policy at NASA has benefited in the past from the input of an internal advisory committee; however, that process is no longer in use. The committee recommends that NASA reestablish an independent advisory body and process to help guide formulation and implementation of planetary protection adequate to serve the best interests of the public, the NASA program, and the variety of new entrants that may become active in deep space operations in the years ahead. The advisory body and process should involve a formal Federal Advisory Committee Act committee and interagency coordination, as well as ad-hoc advisory committees, if and as circumstances dictate. This advisory apparatus should be situated and engage within NASA at a level commensurate with the broad cross-cutting scope of its purview and the potentially broad interests that the involved issues may engender.7
Modern biology, specifically the ability to sequence the genomes of hundreds of thousands of organisms across the entire tree of life on Earth, offers a scientific pathway to the future for development of planetary protection policy. DNA sequencing techniques may be able to identify organisms that come from Earth-bound spacecraft assembly cleanrooms without the need to treat every microbe on a spacecraft as a potential compromising agent. The committee recommends that NASA should engage the full range of relevant scientific disciplines in the formulation of its planetary protection policies. This requires that scientific leaders outside of the standard planetary
protection community in NASA participate in revisions to NASA and COSPAR planetary protection policies and requirements.8
One important role for advisory groups would be to assist NASA in meeting critical planetary protection research and technology priorities by conducting a strategic assessment of the research underpinning the technology needs to implement planetary protection for likely future missions. Thus, the committee recommends that NASA should adequately fund both the Office of Planetary Protection and the research necessary to determine appropriate requirements for planetary bodies and to enable state-of-the-art planetary protection techniques for monitoring and verifying compliance with these requirements. The appropriate investment in this area should be based on a strategic assessment of the scientific advances and technology needs to implement planetary protection for likely future missions.9
The National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) has been providing strategic guidance to NASA’s planetary protection activities for more than 50 years. In general, the National Academies’ recommendations have been positively received and ultimately incorporated into COSPAR policy. However, the SSB and NASA should pursue new mechanisms to anticipate emerging issues in planetary protection, respond more rapidly, and address new dimensions, such as private-sector missions and human exploration. Future decadal survey committees should give greater prominence to planetary protection issues and play a more proactive role in their identification and possible resolution.10
ADVICE CONCERNING SAMPLE RETURN FROM AND HUMAN MISSIONS TO MARS
Although NASA and other entities are planning for robotic sample return and human missions to Mars in, respectively, the 2020s and 2030s, NASA does not currently have a policy for planetary protection for human exploration. Therefore, the committee recommends that NASA develop an agency-wide strategic plan for managing the planetary protection policy development challenges that sample return and human missions to Mars are creating.11
Furthermore, the current U.S. government process to oversee samples returned from Mars and elsewhere originates in the Apollo era and is out of date. Therefore, the committee recommends that the Administration, most probably through the National Space Council, National Security Council (NSC), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should revisit NSC Memorandum 25 in light of NASA plans for Mars sample return missions and human-crewed missions to Mars and revise or replace its provisions for engaging relevant federal agencies in developing back-contamination protection policies.12
Sample return and human missions to Mars also create additional planetary protection challenges in two areas: early consultations between mission planners on issues relating to sample containment and back contamination, and the development of an international consensus as to appropriate planetary protection procedures for such missions. These challenges are addressed by the following three recommendations:
- NASA’s process for developing planetary protection policy for sample return missions should include early consultation with mission developers and managers, mission and receiving facility science teams, and microbiologists and include providing a means to use the best available biological and technological knowledge about back contamination and containment.13
- NASA’s process for developing a human Mars exploration policy should include examination of alternative planetary protection scenarios and should have access to the necessary research that informs these alternatives. It should also include plans to engage with other nations on the policy and legal implications of missions to Mars.14
- The Department of State, informed by consultations with the appropriate experts and stakeholders, should embark on active international diplomacy to forge consensus on appropriate policies for planetary protection for a broad range of future missions to Mars. The goal should be to maintain and develop international consensus on how best to mutually and cooperatively meet all signatories’obligations under Articles IX and VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Such diplomacy should take into consideration, to the extent possible, the best available science as well as anticipate new missions in space.15
ADVICE CONCERNING THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Another significant challenge to planetary protection is the absence to date of any significant voice for the burgeoning private sector in policy development process. As private-sector activities impinge on areas previously the exclusive domain of government-sponsored programs (e.g., missions to Mars), the applicability of planetary protection regulations is a key issue to be faced. One set of regulations for private-sector activities and another for those undertaken by governmental entities is likely cumbersome, open to ambiguity and abuse, and probably unworkable. Therefore, the committee recommends that planetary protection policies and requirements for forward and back contamination should apply equally to both government-sponsored and private-sector missions to Mars.16
If planetary protection policies operate in an even-handed manner, then the private sector needs an entrée to the policy-setting process. Therefore, the committee recommends that NASA ensure that its policy-development processes, including new mechanisms (e.g., a revitalized external advisory committee focused on planetary protection) make appropriate efforts to take into account the views of the private sector in the development of planetary protection policy. NASA should support the efforts of COSPAR officials to increase private-sector participation in the COSPAR process on planetary protection.17
A more basic issue concerning the development of private-sector space activities beyond low-Earth orbit is the so-called regulatory gap. That is, no regulatory agency within the U.S. government has authority to meet the OST obligation to “authorize and continually supervise” in-flight space exploration by nongovernmental entities. The committee recommends that Congress address the regulatory gap by promulgating legislation that grants jurisdiction to an appropriate federal regulatory agency to authorize and supervise private-sector space activities that raise planetary protection issues. The legislation should also ensure that the authority granted be exercised in a way that is based on the most relevant scientific information and best practices on planetary protection.18
One final issue in policy development has the potential to impact all future spacecraft missions, be they robotic or human or private sector or government sponsored. That is, For how long do planetary protection policies apply? As capabilities increase and knowledge of solar system environments grow, it is conceivable that there may be a lesser need for strict policies. Therefore, given the implications with respect to the OST, the committee recommends that NASA and COSPAR should facilitate development of an international strategy for establishing periods of biological exploration. Such a strategy should ensure that individual nation-states are all using the same values. Specification of this period is vital to the calculations of probability of contaminating a potential habitat on another world.19