The Sample-Receiving Facility
Given that materials returned to Earth from Mars will be contained and treated as though potentially hazardous until proven otherwise (see recommendations in Chapter 4), a sample-receiving facility will be required to ensure containment while the samples are evaluated.
The Mars sample-receiving facility need not be as elaborate or as expensive as the Lunar Receiving Laboratory constructed during the Apollo program to receive samples returned from the moon. Early sample-return missions to Mars will be robotic rather than crewed, thus obviating the need to place astronauts in quarantine. Furthermore, there likely will be no need to attempt to cultivate putative organisms or challenge plants and animals directly; in fact, most terrestrial soil microorganisms cannot be cultured. Thus, the direct examination methods discussed in the previous chapter constitute both a more effective and more efficient approach to life detection. If tests for potential pathogenesis are deemed necessary, they would be more efficiently conducted by challenging cultured plant and animal tissues rather than plants and animals directly.
There will be a need for an appropriately stringent biological containment capability and for a broadly multidisciplinary science team to carry out the initial evaluation and characterization of samples returned from Mars.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM APOLLO
It was evident from the Apollo experience that the science team, and therefore the Lunar Receiving Laboratory as a whole, would have been more effective if the team members had developed experience working together as a group on
common problems prior to the receipt of the lunar samples. During preliminary study of those samples, serious problems were encountered, including repeated compromises of quarantine (Bagby, 1975). Many of these problems could have been prevented had the science team and the receiving laboratory been operational well before receipt of the samples.
To avoid similar problems during the initial investigation of samples returned from Mars, and to provide sufficient time to develop and validate the requisite life detection, containment, and sterilization procedures, the science team and receiving facility should be established as soon as possible once serious planning for a sample-return mission has begun. At a minimum, the facility should be operational at least two years prior to launch.
Recommendation. A research facility for receiving, containing, and processing returned samples should be established as soon as possible once serious planning for a Mars sample-return mission has begun. At a minimum, the facility should be operational at least two years prior to launch. The facility should be staffed by a multidisciplinary team of scientists responsible for the development and validation of procedures for detection, preliminary characterization, and containment of organisms (living, dead, or fossil) in returned samples and for sample sterilization. An advisory panel of scientists should be constituted with oversight responsibilities for the facility.
MARS SAMPLE-RECEIVING, CONTAINMENT, AND RESEARCH FACILITY
To meet its responsibilities, the sample-receiving, containment, and research facility should include an appropriately stringent biological containment capability and be staffed by a broadly multidisciplinary team of scientists with expertise in, for example, effective containment of microbes, analysis and curation of geological and biological samples (Gooding, 1990), microbial paleontology and evolution, field ecology and laboratory culture, cell and molecular biology, organic and light stable isotope geochemistry, petrology, mineralogy, and martian geology.
Although NASA has developed extensive plans for a Mars sample-receiving facility (Townsend, 1990), no facility meeting all the requirements currently exists. No NASA center has the required equipment or experience in high-level biological containment. Other governmental organizations, such as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have expertise in biological containment but may lack expertise in the biology of nonpathogenic microbes, microbial paleontology, and the relevant aspects of geology and geochemistry. The staff of the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) has some of the required expertise in biology, and the staff of the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) has some of the required expertise
in geochemistry and sample curation, but neither center has the full complement of expertise required to operate a sample-receiving, containment, and research facility.
Establishment of a multidisciplinary sample-receiving, containment, and research facility could be accomplished in three different ways:
Organization of a dispersed center consisting of government and university scientists associated with a sample-receiving facility but who would remain at their home institutions during the research and development phase prior to the return of samples.
Creation of enhanced capability at an existing NASA center by combining relevant personnel from ARC and JSC and adding capability and expertise in high-level biological containment.
Creation of a new facility, staffed chiefly by new personnel and augmented by selected NASA scientists.
The various investigative techniques and strategies required to adequately characterize and preserve samples returned from Mars interrelate in such a complex way that it will be essential for the multidisciplinary science team to form a consensus on goals and approaches prior to receipt of any sample material. This will occur only if the investigators have sufficient experience working together as a team investigating sample analogs such as martian meteorites and appropriate terrestrial samples. A dispersed center would not naturally facilitate evolution of the team approach that will be so critical to successful operation of the sample-receiving and research facility. If the dispersed-center option is chosen, strenuous effort will be required on the part of NASA management to integrate the efforts of the individual investigators and foster a team approach during the research and development phase prior to actual sample return.
The effectiveness and efficiency of the facility will be enhanced if the same science team that has responsibility for evaluating and characterizing returned samples takes a leading role in developing the techniques and the baseline science required to properly carry out that task. Thus, no matter which option is adopted, the sample-receiving, containment, and research facility should be responsible for advancing the state of the art in life detection, sample sterilization and containment, and the ecological study of extreme environments on Earth that may be similar to possible Martian environments.
The endeavor will be successful only if excellent scientists are attracted to participate. To accomplish this, it would be desirable for the sample-receiving and research facility to focus on Mars-relevant, rather than Mars-only, scientific questions. For example, research could focus on the study of the limits of life in extreme environments—the discovery and characterization of microorganisms inhabiting Mars-like environments on Earth or other extreme terrestrial environments. In addition to being directly applicable to the investigation of martian
samples, the life detection techniques thus developed might serve as the basis for improved technology for the robotic exploration of planetary surfaces. Samples returned from Mars would constitute an especially interesting specimen in an ongoing series of specimens analyzed by the facility, and the research carried out there would produce significant scientific results regardless of whether the martian samples contained evidence of past or present life.