For more than 50 years, planetary protection policy has been guiding agencies and missions on requirements, practices, and procedures that satisfy the requirements of the Outer Space Treaty (OST). Changes in planetary protection implementation have occurred incrementally as experience accumulated and mission targets varied. The planetary protection tools of the Viking era are probably no longer affordable or even feasible for spacecraft now in development. They also may no longer be necessary if newly emerging biotechnologies can meet the sterility requirements for new missions such as Europa Clipper.
Now an unprecedented combination of highly complex future missions developed in the context of cost caps, new space actors, and a revolution in biological science suggest that it is time to review the historic approaches to formulating policies for assessing contamination risks and incorporate more recent and relevant scientific and technological information into new approaches. The mission challenges, including visiting regions where there may be evidence of past or present life and returning samples from those regions as well as putting humans on the surface with all the billions of biota carried by our species, are described in detail elsewhere in this report. New space actors who wish to operate via commercial missions are also noted. Rather than respond to this very challenging and potentially extremely rewarding situation by again invoking the planetary protection concepts and tools from the past, the space exploration community has an opportunity to plan in advance to meet oncoming needs and capitalize on new scientific discoveries.
Earlier chapters in this report have discussed how key NASA documents define the agency’s top-level policy planetary protection goals and major roles and responsibilities for implementation of the policy. However, in assessing NASA’s policy development processes, the committee did not find a clear articulation of who in the agency is responsible for policy formulation or whether policy formulation and implementation are intended to be separate, independent responsibilities. Furthermore, NASA’s top-level documents do not present a related strategy for planning, budgeting, and setting priorities for the planetary protection program or performance metrics for the program. Such considerations have a direct impact on NASA’s ability to execute policy and, equally importantly, to ensure that the policy can evolve as needed in the future. All of these issues are appropriate items for a planetary protection strategic plan.
Finding: The issues raised in the committee’s assessment of NASA’s planetary protection policy development processes comprise appropriate topics for a planetary protection strategic plan, but NASA currently lacks such a plan.
Recommendation 7.1: 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
- 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, human missions to Mars, and private-sector involvement in solar system exploration missions.
The sections below elaborate on each of these topics and relate them to recommendations stemming from the committee’s assessments in earlier chapters. Having a plan that addresses these issues will not, by itself, resolve the issues or solve the problems that the committee has identified, but developing a comprehensive plan is an important step in that direction.
Three of the committee’s recommendations are relevant to issues associated with the managing the implementation of planetary protection policy:
- Recommendation 3.2 called attention to the need for NASA to assess the completeness of planetary protection requirements for future missions and to identify requirements early in a mission’s design and development lifetime. It also recommended that NASA adhere to established project management and systems engineering protocols when planetary protection requirements are levied on projects rather than to depend on informal mechanisms and to utilize established conflict resolution processes.
- Recommendation 3.3 noted the need to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are engaged as new or modified planetary protection policies are considered.
- Recommendation 3.4 emphasized the need to clearly define institutional roles, responsibilities, and resources for planetary protection activities that have been recently assigned to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.
A planetary protection strategic plan could provide a basis for how NASA intends to act on each of these recommendations. Specifically, such a plan would address the following elements:
- Relative roles and responsibilities in NASA for planetary protection policy formulation, implementation, and compliance validation;
- Plans for conducting a thorough review of the completeness of current policies and requirements, especially with respect to potential new issues associated with future missions;
- Reaffirmation of established processes for defining and communicating requirements, especially level-2 and lower level requirements;
- Use of NASA standard project management and systems engineering protocols in developing planetary protection requirements and delegating implementation responsibilities;
- Management and mitigation of risk in a cost-capped program environment;
- Participation by all agency stakeholders in policy changes and requirements development;
- Institutional roles and responsibilities for planetary protection research and technology development; and
- Resource needs (workforce and budget) to conduct planetary protection responsibilities effectively.
Two of the committee’s recommendations are relevant to issues associated with securing relevant outside advice:
- Recommendation 3.6 called for the reestablishment of an independent planetary protection advisory committee. The recommendation’s parent section (see “An Independent Planetary Protection Advisory Committee” in Chapter 3) outlines the reasons that NASA needs to have access to independent outside expert advice and notes that the former Planetary Protection Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee no longer exists. Such a committee, if reestablished, could provide both policy and technical advice and facilitate NASA’s interactions with other federal agencies and other stakeholders, including scientists and the private sector.
- Recommendation 3.7 urged NASA to broaden its sources of scientific input to include all relevant scientific disciplines.
The roles of the advisory body could include the following:
- Serve as a sounding board and source of input to assist in the development of planetary protection requirements for new missions and U.S. input to Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Panel on Planetary Protection deliberations,
- Provide advice on opportunities, needs, and priorities for investments in planetary protection research and technology development, and
- Act as a peer-review forum to facilitate the effectiveness of NASA’s planetary protection activities.
Chapter 3 discussed the committee’s concerns over the adequacy of investments in research on new scientific and technological tools to make planetary protection activities more effective, reduce uncertainties, and facilitate timely improvements to planetary protection policies. Recommendation 3.8 called for a strategic assessment of technology needs and opportunities for future missions. The analysis in Chapter 3 regarding experience with planetary protection activities in two highly relevant missions—Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper—emphasized the importance of identifying key planetary protection issues and requirements very early in a mission’s design and development cycle. Only by means of such early engagement, can planetary protection officials and project teams have the time to make informed tradeoffs between often competing demands of requirements to satisfy planetary protection objectives and mission cost and technical constraints.
A long-range forecast of likely future missions that will have implications for planetary protection is an essential element of a planetary protection strategic plan. The forecast would become a tool for the following:
- Advisory bodies as they assist NASA in setting priorities for research and technology investments; and
- NASA planetary protection officials as they look ahead well in advance at likely future missions and begin to consider planetary protection guidelines and requirements that mission planners will need to understand and incorporate into their planning.
Preparations for new missions to Mars are opening a new era of solar system exploration that will have profound planetary protection implications. Mars 2020 will begin a multi-mission program to return samples from Mars to Earth and, thereby, introduce the first serious back contamination considerations since the Apollo program. Plans for human missions to Mars in the foreseeable future pose entirely new considerations for how to
meet international planetary protection obligations. The committee has noted in Chapters 3 and 5 that planetary protection policies to deal with these new events are significantly incomplete. Recommendation 3.5 called for an agency-wide strategic plan for managing planetary protection responsibilities for the new Mars missions.
The committee calls attention to several important aspects of the Mars planetary protection policy. First, the policy will need to address requirements for sample containment, verification of containment, and receiving facilities for returned samples and their return vehicle. Recommendation 3.1 emphasizes that this policy will need to draw on input from a broad range of experts, including mission and facility development teams and scientists from across the spectrum of biology and biotechnology. The current U.S. government-wide policy for dealing with space experiments that might have effects potentially harmful on Earth is a Presidential Directive (NSC-25) that dates back to 1977. Because this policy concerns all relevant federal agencies, any revision will need to come from outside NASA. Nevertheless, NASA is the best agency to stimulate discussion within the government leading to appropriate revisions that the committee recommends (Recommendation 4.2).
One of the most important elements of a human Mars exploration strategy will be consideration of whether and how to partition the planet so that human activities and robotic scientific investigations can coexist in a manner that protects scientific research from harmful contamination and reflects the intent of articles of the OST. Recommendation 5.1 suggests that NASA efforts to draft a Mars strategy include analysis of alternative scenarios for facilitating simultaneous human and robotic activities on Mars and to engage other nations in these studies. Recommendation 4.2 acknowledges that such international discussions will need leadership from the Department of State, with expert assistance from NASA.
Each of the issues regarding a planetary protection strategy for Mars exploration will require significant effort. The committee concludes that an overall NASA planetary protection strategic plan is an appropriate platform for organizing the effort and creating a plan for the job.
In Chapter 6 the committee discusses the planetary protection policy implications from growing private-sector missions to solar system bodies, especially Mars, and the committee offers two recommendations. First, the OST requires that states parties bear responsibility for ensuring that private-sector missions as well as government-sponsored missions comply with planetary protection provisions of the treaty. Therefore, Recommendation 6.2 calls on Congress to address the gap in current federal regulations that currently fail to assign authority for monitoring private-sector compliance with planetary protection requirements. As the home of U.S. government expertise in planetary protection, NASA is best able to assist in identifying the issues to be addressed by a legislative solution.
Second, the committee has noted that development of planetary protection policy has been largely a scientific effort throughout the history of solar system exploration. On an international level, COSPAR has provided a successful mechanism for developing international, science-based agreement and cooperation on planetary protection for more than 50 years. Recommendation 6.1 indicates that future planetary protection guidelines apply equally well to government-sponsored and private-sector missions. This is especially true if policies are developed in a way that ensures that private-sector concerns are understood as policy evolves. COSPAR officials told the committee that the organization is well aware that private-sector entities comprise a new stakeholder in planetary protection policy development. In Recommendation 6.3, the committee encourages NASA to exercise opportunities to promote private-sector participation in development of planetary protection policy, both within NASA and in COSPAR.
At the dawn of the space age, visionary proponents of solar system exploration imagined a time when one could answer questions about whether life ever existed on other solar system bodies and about how life originated on Earth. That time has come as sophisticated life detection instruments are being prepared to study the surface of Mars, return samples of the planet to Earth, and send human explorers for first-hand studies of the planet and as missions to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and its interior ocean begin development. Soundly framed and
executed planetary protection policies will play a critical role in ensuring that these efforts will be able to deliver unambiguous answers and to preserve opportunities for continued scientific studies and exploration. Such policies will need to be consonant with new dimensions of solar system exploration—for example, including new advances and capabilities in biotechnology, realistic budgets, the entry of new international and private-sector players, and eventual human presence on other bodies—that go beyond past experience and demand proactive attention. NASA has played a pivotal leadership role on behalf of the United States in developing successful planetary protection policies for more than five decades, and the committee’s recommendations are intended to help sustain that success in the future.