In the decades since the lunar sample-return missions, changes have occurred in the perception of risk associated with large-scale scientific endeavors (NRC, 1996, 1989) and in the manner in which programmatic decisions are made for such activities. New laws, more intense government oversight, and increased public involvement in the decision-making process will require that legal, regulatory, and societal issues be addressed early in the planning of any Mars sample-return mission (Race, 1996). The proper design and implementation of planetary protection measures will ultimately be critical to overall mission success.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM APOLLO
During the early years of the Apollo program, while lunar sample-return missions were still in the initial planning phase, it was recognized that planetary protection, particularly protection against back contamination of Earth by hypothetical lunar organisms, was a critical issue that had to be addressed before sample-return missions could go forward. At that time the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) was established to preserve public health and protect agricultural and other resources against the possibility of contamination by hypothetical lunar organisms conveyed in returned sample material or other material exposed to the lunar surface (including astronauts) and to preserve the biological and chemical integrity of lunar samples and scientific experiments with minimal compromise to the operating aspects of the program. The ICBC played a crucial role during both the planning and implementation phases of the first
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).
The best-laid plans are only as effective as their implementation. It will be necessary to verify that all planetary protection measures are properly carried out throughout the mission, including curation and possible distribution of sample material. Formal administrative oversight is required to avoid the lapses in quarantine and handling that occurred during lunar sample-return missions (Bagby, 1975). Such administrative oversight should be sufficiently removed from mission efforts to maintain an independent perspective and avoid conflicts of interest. NASA should ensure that planetary protection oversight is incorporated into mission planning as early as possible and that it includes identification and conduct of the research and technology development required to properly implement planetary protection measures. Clear lines of authority and accountability should be established within NASA to ensure proper implementation of planetary protection measures.
Recommendation. An administrative structure should be established within NASA to verify and certify adherence to planetary protection requirements at each critical stage of a sample-return mission, including launch, reentry, and sample distribution.
Since the return of lunar samples, significant changes have occurred in the public decision-making realm. New laws, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act, and more open review processes allow for citizen involvement in nearly all aspects of governmental decision making. Technical and scientific decisions about mission hardware and operations, while still made by groups of experts, are now scrutinized by other governmental bodies, the general public, advocacy groups, and the media. The array of environmental, health, and safety laws enacted during the past several decades provides ample opportunity for public involvement, including legal challenges, in many parts of the decision-making process that were previously conducted in private.
In light of the public's past response to other controversies involving science and technology issues, it is possible that environmental and quality-of-life issues will be raised in the context of a Mars sample-return mission. If so, it is possible that the adequacy of planned planetary protection measures will be questioned in depth. The public will need accurate and timely information in order to be appropriately informed about planning and implementation of planetary protection measures during sample-return missions. It is essential that NASA acknowledge the public's legitimate interest in and concern regarding planetary protection from the outset, keeping it fully informed and involved throughout the decision-making process and subsequent implementation.
Recommendation. Throughout any sample-return program, the public should be openly informed of plans, activities, results, and associated issues.