Executive Branch Coordination
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 provided for the exchange of information and discoveries among federal agencies particularly to ensure “close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities and equipment.”1 Such cooperation arose in the 1960s, via the establishment of the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC)2 to provide advice regarding policy and procedures to prevent potential contamination from lunar samples returned during the Apollo program (see “The Apollo Experience,” in Chapter 2). The ICBC membership included representatives from the Departments of Agriculture; Health, Education, and Welfare (in particular, the Public Health Service); and Interior, plus members from the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.3 After playing an active role in overseeing the Lunar Receiving Laboratory and of the release of lunar samples, the ICBC was disbanded after the end of the Apollo program.
Building upon National Security Action Memorandum 235,4 Presidential Directive-National Security Council (NSC) Memorandum 25 (NSC-25)5 re-established and extended the formal process by which the U.S. government reviews and approves space activities that could potentially have large-scale adverse environmental effects on Earth. Although the 1977 directive applied mainly to the launch of nuclear power systems, it also provided a basis and process for assessing the risks of backward contamination from returned astronauts and extraterrestrial samples.
1 T.A. Mahoney, N. Weiner, and L. Kollath, Organizational Strategies for Protection Against Back Contamination, Final Report of NASA Grant NGL 24-005-160.
2 See, for example, J.R. Bagby, Jr., “Back Contamination: Lessons Learned During the Apollo Lunar Quarantine Program,” prepared for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory under Contract #560226, July 1, 1975.
3 B. Pugel. “Restricted by Whom? A Historical Review of Strategies and Organization for Restricted Earth Return of Samples from NASA Planetary Missions,” presentation to the Committee on Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes, Space Studies Board, National Academy of Sciences, July 2017, Slide 5.
5 The White House, “Scientific or Technical Experiments with Possible Large-Scale Adverse Environmental Effects and Launch of Nuclear Systems into Space,” Presidential Directive NSC-25, December 14, 1977. https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/pd/pd25.pdf.
Under NSC-25, any agency that proposes to undertake a scientific or technological experiment that could have serious terrestrial environmental consequences is first required to submit an environmental impact statement and seek approval from the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Prescribed consultations between the director of OSTP and the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) provide a means to secure interagency input to the decision-making process. The directive noted that although approval of a proposal rests entirely within the U.S. government, “the National Academy of Sciences and, where appropriate, international scientific bodies or intergovernmental organizations may be consulted in the case of those experiments that might have adverse effects beyond the United States.”6 This language provides an opportunity for consultation with, for example, the Space Studies Board (SSB) and Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) when considering planetary protection policies related to back contamination from returned samples and astronauts.
Although NSC-25 prescribes an interagency review process, it does not adequately capture the full range of federal agencies that, today, would have a legitimate role in reviewing planetary protection plans for returned astronauts and samples. Nor does the directive provide sufficiently clear guidance on how the interagency review process is to operate. An up-to-date approach that establishes an early, clear, and orderly process for formulating policy regarding the return of samples and humans from Mars is needed.
Finding: NSC-25 is out of date. Plans to send robotic sample return and human-crewed missions to Mars in the next few decades will, in all likelihood, create planetary protection challenges that current national processes on developing planetary protection policy are not well-equipped to handle.
Recommendation 4.1: 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.
Department of State
Responsibilities for space policy activities in the Department of State reside in the Office of Space and Advanced Technology (SAT) of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. The office coordinates interagency participation in development and implementation of international agreements relating to civil space programs. SAT also provides the U.S. representative to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), and it stewards U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty (OST), including those related to planetary protection.
As noted in Chapter 2, planetary protection policy, including implementation of the OST’s provisions on planetary protection, has not, to date, created international disputes and disagreements that required sustained Department of State involvement. However, changes in space exploration activities, especially planned sample return and human missions to Mars, might create more diplomatic contexts in which spacefaring nations want to discuss planetary protection. Thus, planetary protection might become a more important issue for the Department of State’s responsibilities for space policy activities.
Finding: The effectiveness of COSPAR’s development of planetary protection policy guidelines and international compliance with the provisions of the OST has mitigated the need for significant interventions by the Department of State. However, the planned sample return and human missions to Mars will raise planetary protection issues that require more diplomatic attention.
6 See Section 6 of The White House, “Scientific or Technical Experiments with Possible Large-Scale Adverse Environmental Effects and Launch of Nuclear Systems into Space,” Presidential Directive NSC-25, December 14, 1977, https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/pd/pd25.pdf.
Recommendation 4.2: 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.
Department of Transportation
Within the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has licensing and regulatory responsibilities for all U.S. private-sector space launch and reentry activities. These regulatory roles consider compliance with international agreements, protection of public health and safety, and U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities. AST also works to foster the U.S. private-sector space transportation industry. The office’s formal charter does not extend beyond activities connected with launch and reentry, and so it has no explicit authority to deal with planetary protection aspects of private-sector space missions. AST draws on advice from a formally established advisory committee—the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC)—that advises the FAA Administrator on matters of interest to AST.7 COMSTAC members are senior experts from a wide range of stakeholder groups, including the aerospace industry, other industries having interests in space transportation (e.g., finance and insurance), academia, and space-related nongovernmental organizations.
The FAA’s authority is unclear in two areas important for planetary protection policy. First, while the agency issues licenses for private-sector launches and spacecraft reentry, it has no authority to review or approve postlaunch mission operations or activities around or on another planetary body.8 Second, there is no explicit legislative or executive guidance about whether FAA’s spacecraft reentry licensing authority extends to review or approval of plans to prevent back contamination from sample return missions. These two areas underscore the importance of addressing the, so-called “regulatory gap” discussed in Chapter 6.
Department of Commerce
The Office of Space Commerce, under the auspices of the Department of Commerce (DoC), oversees and leads the activities surrounding space commerce policy. The primary mission of the office is to serve as an advocate, resource, and voice for the U.S. commercial space industry within the Executive branch.9 Within the DoC, the Office of Space Commerce partners with other offices including, but not limited to, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office that is responsible for licensing commercial remote sensing satellites, and the Bureau of Industry and Security that oversees the licensing and approvals for dual-use technology.
Currently, the role of the Office of Space Commerce is to coordinate all commercial space-related activities, programs, and initiatives, which primarily revolve around commercial remote sensing policy and regulations. These functions include supporting the activities of the U.S. commercial space sector through economic growth and advancement in technological development, coordinating and developing policies relevant to commercial
7 For more information about COMSTAC see, for example, https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/advisory_committee.
8 The FAA did conduct a “Payload Review” for a company planning commercial lunar activities. However, the review was limited to “public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.” It was not an authorization to conduct on-orbit activities (see FAA, “Fact Sheet—Moon Express Payload Review Determination Share,” August 3, 2016, https://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=20595). “‘This is more symbolic than substantive,’ says John Logsdon, a space policy specialist and professor emeritus at George Washington University” (R.E. Bichell, “Florida Company Gets One Bureaucratic Step Closer to Landing on the Moon,” August 4, 2016, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/04/488730799/florida-company-gets-one-bureaucratic-step-closer-to-landing-on-the-moon).
9 See National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Budget Estimates: Fiscal Year 2019, 2018, http://www.corporateservices.noaa.gov/nbo/fy19_bluebook/FY19-NOAA-CJ.pdf#page=544.
space policy within the DoC and as representatives of U.S. commercial space interests in negotiations with foreign entities, and promoting U.S. commercial geospatial technologies within interagency working groups.10
On May 24, 2018, President Trump signed a memorandum implementing Space Policy Directive 2. This document directs the Secretary of Commerce to consolidate all responsibilities of the DoC with respect to the Department’s regulation of commercial spaceflight activities within the Office of the Secretary and to develop a plan for an entity to administer the Department’s regulation of commercial spaceflight activities.11 This action is consistent with and partially preempts provisions of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (see the next section) that would make the Office of Space Commerce the leading entity for overseeing and approving commercial space activity, except for current launch licensing approvals conducted by the FAA AST and space communications licensing by the Federal Communications Commission.
Plans to reorganize the Office of Space Commerce have two major implications: expansion of office personnel and expertise; and a request for more funding. In the 2018-2022 DoC Strategic Plan, the Office of Space Commerce is expected to “expand commercial space activities.”12
As noted above, Congress has assigned authority to review and approve private-sector space launches and reentries to the FAA. Congress also has accepted NASA’s responsibilities for ensuring U.S. compliance with planetary protection provisions of the OST, for government-sponsored space missions. However until recently, there has been little legislative attention to planetary protection policy development or implementation.
Two recent legislative proposals suggest that new congressional interest in the subject is emerging and evolving. The proposed NASA Authorization Act of 2015 included a section that called for a National Academies “study to explore the planetary protection ramifications of potential future missions by astronauts such as to the lunar polar regions, near-Earth asteroids, the moons of Mars, and the surface of Mars.”13 The proposed study would examine prior work relevant to planetary protection for human missions, identify relevant remaining concerns, and recommend methodologies for assessing planetary protection concerns for human missions. The bill passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate.
In 2017, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act was introduced in the House and approved by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.14 The bill contains a number of provisions relevant to planetary protection. For example, in its section on compliance with the OST, the bill provided that the “federal government shall not presume all obligations of the United States under the OST are obligations to be imputed upon United States non-governmental entities.”15 This instruction generates questions about its implications for the obligation of the U.S. government to authorize and continuously supervise the nongovernmental space activities that involve planetary protection issues.
In addition, this bill proposes establishment of a Private Space Activity Advisory Committee, which would report to Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Commerce. The proposed committee is required to have at least three industry members and prohibits any Federal employee or official from participating. The eight duties assigned to the committee included the following:16
10 See NOAA, “Legal and Departmental Authorities of the Office of Space Commerce,” Office of Space Commerce, http://www.space.commerce.gov/law/office-of-space-commercialization.
11 For more information about Space Policy Directive 2, see D.J. Trump, “Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space,” May 24, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/space-policy-directive-2-streamlining-regulations-commercial-use-space.
12 See NOAA, “DOC Strategic Plan Prioritizes Space Commerce,” Office of Space Commerce, February 13, 2018, http://www.space.commerce.gov/doc-strategic-plan-prioritizes-space-commerce.
13 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2015, H.R. 810.
14 For more information about the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017, H.R. 2809, see https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2809).
15 H.R. 2809, §80103(c), Compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.
16 H.R. 2809, §80109, Private Space Activity Advisory Committee.
- Identify any challenges the United States private sector is experiencing . . . with the authorization and supervision of the operation of space objects . . . with international obligations of the United States relevant to the private sector . . . and . . . with harmful interference to private sector activities in outer space.
- Review existing best practices for United States entities to avoid the harmful contamination of the Moon and other celestial bodies.
- Review existing best practices for United States entities to avoid adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.
In April 2018, the House of Representatives passed the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. But, at the time this report was written, the Senate had not acted on this or any related bill. Congressional action is still needed in order to facilitate development of planetary protection policy relating to private-sector space activities. At the present, no federal regulatory agency has the jurisdiction to authorize and continually supervise on-orbit activities undertaken by private-sector actors, including activities that could raise planetary protection issues. The committee discusses this problem in Chapter 5.
Current COSPAR Planetary Protection Guidelines
The current COSPAR planetary protection policy states that
The conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized. In addition, the Earth must be protected from the potential hazard posed by extraterrestrial matter carried by a spacecraft returning from an interplanetary mission. Therefore, for certain space mission/target planet combinations, controls on contamination shall be imposed in accordance with issuances implementing this policy.17
The policy adopts the five mission-type-target-body categories and their range of requirements (see Table 2.1) from the NASA policy.
COSPAR guidelines are not legally binding on any state or national space agency, but spacefaring nations, including the United States, have taken them seriously and largely complied with them. For example, all missions of the European Space Agency (ESA) have complied with COSPAR guidelines. Japanese missions have also followed COSPAR guidelines. The same can be said for certain Russian missions, India’s Mars orbiter mission, and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars orbiter mission, scheduled for launch in March 2020. In other cases, such as Russia’s Phobos-Grunt, launched in 2011, compliance was controversial (see Chapter 2). Some in the science community and legal community asserted that this latter mission violated COSPAR guidelines and even Article IX of the OST itself. In the end, the mission failed to leave Earth’s orbit, so the asserted violations did not lead to actual forward contamination risks.
In short, COSPAR has been a uniquely important forum through which common planetary protection standards have been adopted around the world, and a major organ through which the United States and all other spacefaring nations have historically chosen to meet their obligations under Article IX of the OST.
Finding: COSPAR has been a crucial forum for furthering international cooperation with respect to planetary protection ever since its creation in 1958.
How COSPAR Works: Organization and Decision Making
COSPAR is a scientific organization established by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in 1958. Although it is not formally associated with the UN, COSPAR does organize scientific symposia on behalf of and
17 G. Kminek, C. Conley, V. Hipkin, and H. Yano, COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy, Space Research Today, No. 200, December 2017, pp. 12-24.
provide information and advice to the UN’s COPUOS. Formal COSPAR members are either national scientific institutions (e.g., National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States) or international scientific unions (e.g., International Union of Biological Sciences). Any person may become a COSPAR associate “by attending a COSPAR biennial Assembly or a COSPAR event involving registration or by communicating his/her interest to the Secretariat.”18 The by-laws stipulate that an associate is expected to become a member of up to three of COSPAR’s scientific discipline commissions. Such membership is not limited to scientists, and associates are allowed to participate in COSPAR’s scientific commissions and can vote during the business meeting. COSPAR by-laws also allow for the honorific status of COSPAR Associated Supporter. This status is open to “any duly constituted legal entity or individuals. Such entities and persons wishing to become COSPAR Associated Supporters must request this status in writing to the President through the Secretariat and pay an adherence fee.”19 Lockheed Martin Corporation and Orbital ATK, for example, are among COSPAR’s few private-sector Associated Supporters. In short, COSPAR has an open process in terms of membership and participation in policy decision making. Thus it more nearly resembles community-based ad hoc organizations (e.g., like NASA’s informal analysis/assessment groups such as the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group) rather than the formally organized NASA advisory entities such as the NASA Advisory Council.20
COSPAR is governed by a Council comprised of the president, representatives of national member institutions, the chairs of COSPAR’s eight scientific commissions, and the chair of the Finance Committee. The COSPAR Bureau, which oversees day-to-day operations, is elected by the Council, is comprised of the president, two vice presidents, and six other members.
COSPAR policy and guidelines are established and amended through the process of resolutions. An amendment to existing planetary protection policy and guidelines can be considered if a COSPAR Associate, Bureau, or Council member brings the underlying issue to the attention of the chair of the Panel on Planetary Protection. If the issue is complex, the chair requests the convening of a COSPAR workshop or colloquium to review, discuss, and evaluate the merits of the issue and the associated proposal for an amendment. Proposals for amendments may be based on new discoveries, the results of new research, or recommendations to agencies by advisory bodies (internal or external). Proposals may also be based on the identification of new implementation strategies, the need for more detailed guidelines, and new challenges. After a discussion by participants, workshops may suggest wording for a proposed amendment and prepare a draft resolution to be presented to the COSPAR Panel on Planetary Protection during its business meeting at the next COSPAR Scientific Assembly. The participants present during the business meeting to discuss the proposed amendment to the planetary protection policy and, if no objections are raised, it is approved and passed on to the COSPAR Council, via the Bureau (Figure 4.1). With approval by the Council, the proposed amendment becomes part of formal COSPAR guidance on planetary protection.
Unlike most COSPAR panels, which serve as fora for discussion and advice to COSPAR on particular topics, the Panel on Planetary Protection can recommend international standards to guide compliance with the OST. In the past, the panel has had no formal membership except for a chair and vice chairs. Participation in panel meetings depended entirely on who chose to attend. COSPAR recently reconstituted the Panel on Planetary Protection to introduce a formality in its structure and processes to ensure that all space agency stakeholders affected by COSPAR planetary protection policy can participate in the formation of the policy.21 The reconstituted panel is fully endorsed by the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
In the revised structure, the chair will be a recognized scientific leader who is not a national space agency official. One vice chair will be an expert in planetary protection, and a second vice chair will be designated by the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs. The remaining members of the panel will be nominated by national space agencies (and approved by COSPAR). The chairs of the COSPAR scientific commissions concerned with solar system studies (Scientific Commission B) and with space life sciences (Scientific Commission F), or their nominees, also
21 J.D. Rummel and G. Kminek. “COSPAR’s Planetary Protection Policy: Updating a Consensus Standard,” IAC-17, E7,7-B3.8, 7, 68th International Astronautical Congress, Adelaide, Australia, September 25-29, 2017.
will be members. Panel meetings will be open to participation by all interested parties including representatives of COSPAR’s national scientific institutions (e.g., the SSB in the case of the United States), scientific commissions, and international scientific unions. The restructuring effort was concluded successfully when the new terms of reference for the Panel on Planetary Protection were adopted by the Bureau and the Council in March 2017 and endorsed by COPUOS in June 2017.22 The initial membership of the panel was approved by the COSPAR Bureau during its March 2018 meeting. Effective from COSPAR’s July 2018 Scientific Assembly, the Panel on Planetary Protection will be chaired by Athena Coustenis (Paris Observatory) and its vice chairs will be Gerhard Kminek (ESA planetary protection officer) and Niklas Hedman (UN Office for Outer Space Affairs). In addition, the Bureau accepted the membership of eight panel members nominated by space agencies (see Table 4.1).
Completeness of COSPAR Policies
As Chapter 2 noted, COSPAR’s planetary protection policy has followed the development of U.S. policy as NASA has pursued missions not yet covered by the COSPAR policy. The current COSPAR policy is incomplete with respect to these missions as noted in the section “Assessment of NASA Planetary Protection Policies” in Chapter 3. As a consequence, the NASA Office of Planetary Protection has been required to define new planetary protection policy to cover the gaps in the current international policy. However, this U.S. leadership role may change in
22 L.A. Fisk, “Planetary Protection: The COSPAR perspective,” presentation to the committee on June 28, 2017, Slides 13-18, http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/ssbsite/documents/webpage/ssb_180773.pdf.
TABLE 4.1 Space Agency Representatives Recently Selected to Serve on COSPAR’s Reconstituted Panel on Planetary Protection
|Country||Space Agency||Appointed Representative||Biographical Material Source|
|China||China National Space Administration||Lei Li||https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lei_Li167|
|France||National Centre for Space Studies (CNES)||Michel Viso||https://www.linkedin.com/in/michel-viso-a566051b|
|Germany||German Aerospac Center (DLR)||Petra Rettberg||http://www.dlr.de/me/en/DesktopDefault.aspx/tabid-1761/2381_read-7063|
|India||Indian Space Research Organisation||Seetha Somasundaram||http://vigyanprasar.gov.in/isw/drseetha_story.html|
|Italy||Italian Space Agency (ASI)||Eleonora Ammannito||https://www.linkedin.com/in/eleonora-ammannito-5120b615|
|Japan||Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS)||Saku Tsuneta||https://www.nins.jp/public_information/pdf/06_Saku_Tsuneta.pdf|
|Russia||Space Research Institute (IKI)||Elena Deshevaya||https://www.energia.ru/ktt/en/monographer/deshevaya.html|
|United States||NASA||James L. Green||https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/740/james-green|
NOTE: Additional agency representatives and members nominated by COSPAR’s Scientific Commissions B and F will be added later.
the future as Europe and other nations pursue new missions that have not yet been accomplished. The European Science Foundation has initiated an international activity—Planetary Protection for Outer Solar System—to tackle the science, technology, and policy-making components of biological and organic contamination of the Ocean Worlds and small solar system bodies.23 This 3-year long initiative is providing an international platform where science, industry, and policy makers will meet to exchange key information on the matter of planetary protection.
Finding: The COSPAR policy has historically been incomplete with respect to missions to solar system bodies that have not yet been explored by any nation. These gaps in the current COSPAR policy need to be defined by the nation pursuing a new mission to a previously unexplored body, such as Europa, where the policy has not yet been fully documented. This role has historically been filled by the United States.
Breadth and Depth of Participation in Policy Development
As this report noted in Chapter 3, both NASA and COSPAR have not always been successful at recruiting a wide range of scientists to participate in meetings where new scientific findings are considered for their implications for planetary protection policy.
In addition to the need to expand scientific participation in COSPAR planetary protection colloquia and workshops, the level of participation in the meetings of COSPAR’s Panel on Planetary Protection has been uneven in the past. The relatively limited participation has been a consequence of the informal manner in which the COSPAR
Panel on Planetary Protection has operated. The recent changes to the panel’s structure and organization discussed above may help alleviate this problem.
The new panel structure calls for a U.S. representative from a federal agency that has responsibility for compliance with the OST. In nominating its representative for COSPAR’s Panel on Planetary Protection, the U.S. government may wish to ensure that the nominee can represent the various components of the U.S. policy on planetary protection, including the treaty obligations of the government, the perspectives of the scientific community, human exploration organizations, and the interests of the private sector.
Finding: COSPAR’s reorganization of its Panel on Planetary Protection will help ensure a more structured and formal process for COSPAR planetary protection policy deliberations; however a need remains to ensure that U.S. participation in panel deliberations is appropriately representative of all stakeholder perspectives.
Should COSPAR’s Panel on Planetary Protection evolve still further and develop, for example, an even closer relationship with the United Nations? The committee understands that COSPAR and COPUOS have discussed this possibility and concluded that it was not appropriate at this time.24 Nevertheless, if it proves to be advisable at some time in the future, a possible model for the evolution of COSPAR’s Panel on Planetary Protection from a quasi ad hoc body to a more formal consensus-building body with designated national representatives is discussed in Appendix E. In particular, parallels can be drawn between the reorganization of COSPAR’s Panel on Planetary Protection and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.
The National Academies, and the SSB in particular, have been a significant, if not the dominant, source of scientific advice on planetary protection issues for the past 60 years. In fact, it is arguable that the current planetary protection policies of NASA and COSPAR are derived almost exclusively from input provided by the SSB. The leadership role played by the SSB is a reflection of the dominant role played by NASA in the robotic exploration of the solar system. When NASA initiates a spacecraft mission that will undertake activities not covered in existing policies, the agency frequently asks the SSB for planetary protection advice relevant to the new activity. The requested advice is incorporated in NASA policies and forwarded to COSPAR for possible inclusion in COSPAR policies. The SSB’s role as the U.S. National Committee for COSPAR facilitates the adoption of National Academies’ advice by COSPAR
The SSB’s international leadership role in the provision of scientific advice on planetary protection is not automatically assured. It is contingent on three factors: first, NASA’s leadership in space activities; second, NASA’s request for scientific advice from the SSB; and third, the acceptance of that advice when received. Although there is no expectation on the part of the SSB that all recommendations will be accepted, the historical trend has been that the proffered advice has been well received. However, there are signs that all three factors may not apply into the indefinite future. New international players have their own space aspirations. Foreign space agencies have their own sources of scientific advice. The European Space Agency, for example, looks increasingly to the European Space Science Committee of European Science Foundation (ESF) for input on planetary protection issues. Moreover, NASA’s less-than-positive reaction to the SSB’s 2012 report on the icy bodies of the outer solar system and failure to initiate any follow-up activity, for example, has left the door open for others to fill the advisory gap for these astrobiologically important objects.
As noted above, the ESF’s European Space Science Committee secured funding from the European Commission Horizon 2020 program to initiate the Planetary Protection for Outer Solar System (PPOSS) project.25 The PPOSS consortium includes COSPAR, various European academic, commercial, and trade organizations and space agencies, plus international participants from the China Academy of Space Technology and the Japan Aerospace
24 Private communication from COSPAR President Lennard J. Fisk to committee, May 2018.
Exploration Agency. The initiation of PPOSS has caused the center of gravity for the development of planetary protection policies for the Ocean Worlds to shift from the United States to Europe and points eastward.
Other factors that have influenced the provision of planetary protection advice by the SSB include the following:
- The SSB is reactive in that it responds to requests for scientific advice and does not typically self-initiate planetary protection studies. As a result, issues addressed by the SSB in response to NASA requests are usually conducted in the context of existing planetary protection policies and do not typically address foundational issues associated with forward and backward contamination. One such foundational issue is the validity of the various probabilities and other numerical factors appearing in both NASA and COSPAR policies (e.g., acceptable spore counts following bioload reduction and 10−4 probability for contaminating an internal ocean of an icy body of astrobiological interest as detailed in Table 2.1).
- The planetary science decadal surveys are not appropriate vehicles for discussing the details of planetary protection policies and their implementation. Moreover, what discussion there is of specific planetary protection issues associated with recommended missions is unfocussed because it is scattered throughout a survey report. A proactive approach by future survey committees to identify future planetary protection issues and approaches to their resolution would be of benefit to mission planners, mission managers, and the scientific community.
- The effectiveness of the National Academies’ activities depends upon the availability of relevant experts in academia, research institutes, and industry who can be called upon to provide their expertise. The limited size of the planetary protection community presents special difficulties when finding suitable experts to populate advisory committees. A typical committee consists of only two or three individuals with direct experience of the issue to be addressed, with the balance of the membership being drawn from experts in related disciplines such as planetary science, environmental microbiology, and aerospace engineering. This approach has not compromised the quality of the resulting advice, but it does prolong the completion of the study, with additional time being required to educate those committee members unfamiliar with basic planetary protection concepts.
- All the planetary protection reports drafted by the SSB have focused exclusively on the scientific and technical issues associated with robotic spacecraft missions sponsored by national and international space agencies. Thus, the SSB has been silent on the potentially contentious topics of planetary protection issues associated with private sector and human space activities.
- The National Academies are not typically able to provide advice on short timescales. The need to educate non-experts on basic planetary protection concepts (see above) only exacerbates lengthy response times.
- The National Academies respond to requests for scientific and technical input via a variety of established mechanisms. Best known are the formal reports issued by ad hoc committees. Most recent SSB advice to NASA on planetary protection topics has come via this mechanism. Short reports drafted by standing committees such as the Committee on Planetary Biology and Chemical Evolution,26 Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration,27 and Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life28 also once provided more timely advice to NASA. But changes in National Academies’ policies precluded the ability of standing committees to draft such reports. The current Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), which is the successor to the aforementioned groups, has regained the ability to draft short reports, but only on topics related to the implementation of recommendations contained in the planetary science decadal survey. The current decadal survey mentions the need for advanced planetary protection technology
26 See, for example, National Research Council (NRC), “On the Categorization of the Comet Rendezvous–Asteroid Flyby Mission,” letter from Harold Klein, Chair, Committee on Planetary Biology and Chemical Evolution, to Arnauld Nicogossian, Director, NASA Life Sciences Division, May 16, 1986.
27 See, for example, NRC, “Scientific Assessment of Options for the Disposal of the Galileo Spacecraft,” letter from Claude Canizares, Chair, Space Studies Board, and John Wood, Chair, Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration, to John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer, NASA, June 28, 2000.
28 See, for example, “Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Venus Missions,” letter from Jack Szostak, Co-Chair, Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life, to John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer, NASA, February 8, 2006.
development.29 However, the decadal survey contains no specific planetary protection recommendations. Therefore, is not clear if CAPS, as currently chartered, could respond to a request for a short report addressing a planetary protection issue.
- In addition to study reports, the National Academies also organizes a variety of convening events, including workshops, roundtables, and meetings of experts. None of the three permit the drafting of a report containing consensus conclusions and recommendations, but they provide a sponsor with a mechanism for the discussion of specific topics on a somewhat timelier basis than a study activity. Although the SSB has organized three meetings of experts for NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection in recent years, the other two mechanisms have not been employed to address planetary protection issues. The roundtable activity, in which participants from government, industry, and academia discuss issues of mutual interest, may be particularly suitable to initiate a dialogue on planetary protection issues. However, as with a meeting of experts, when the National Academies convene a roundtable any meeting summary and/or conclusions are the product of the requesting agency or entity. Neither type of activity results in a National Academies reviewed or endorsed report. This critical difference has occasionally resulted in incorrect attribution of such activities as having made National Academies’ recommendations when in fact they did not.
Despite any actual or perceived issues with the activities of the National Academies in the area of planetary protection, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations recognized the work of the SSB in this area in the recently passed Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2019. The report accompanying the bill noted that “planetary protection requirements for each NASA mission and target body are determined based on scientific advice from the Space Studies Board (SSB) . . . and on NASA policy, which is guided by international technical standards established by the international Committee on Space Research.” The committee further acknowledged the importance for “NASA and its academic and industry partners” to follow current planetary protection protocols in order to ensure that precautions are taken to further the future exploration of outer space.30
Finding: The SSB’s international leadership role in planetary protection has been a reflection of the dominant U.S. role in the robotic exploration of the solar system and NASA’s sustained interest in securing and using scientific advice from the SSB, but those factors are not necessarily guaranteed in the future. The SSB has been reactive to requests from NASA rather than proactive, constrained by the limited pool of planetary protection experts to serve on study committees, unable to provide advice on short time-scales, and focused on issues for robotic scientific missions.
Recommendation 4.3: 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 committee’s should give greater prominence to planetary protection issues and play a more proactive role in their identification and possible resolution.
29 NRC, Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011.
30 U.S. House of Representatives, “Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2019,” 115th Congress, p. 60, https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AP/AP00/20180517/108330/HRPT-115-HR.pdf.