Planetary protection: changes coming – but for better or for worse?



Yesterday I tuned in online to a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.* I was interested in hearing the NAC’s discussion of a report from the chair of a new NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters. I blogged about that committee’s first meeting on November 20.

After that meeting, the committee forwarded a set of findings and recommendations to the NAC, including the following:

“While taking appropriate efforts to prevent harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies, NASA should not adopt policies that would place unduly onerous and/or unreasonable restrictions and obligations on public or private sector space missions.”

“NASA should establish a multi-disciplinary team of experts from industry, the scientific community, and relevant government agencies, to develop U.S. policies that properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions.”

“The term ‘Planetary Protection’ should not be used by NASA to describe the need to prevent the contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies through human or robotic exploration. Instead, NASA should more properly refer to conducting space exploration so as to avoid ‘harmful contamination’ of celestial bodies and ‘adverse changes in the environment of the Earth’ when referencing concerns regarding contamination through human or robotic exploration, and the recommended multi-disciplinary team should be tasked with producing a detailed guide for the Administration, the science and research community, and private sector with best practices to protect against harmful contamination.”

The chair of the NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters is private-sector attorney Mike Gold, currently Vice President, Washington, DC Operations for Space System Loral (SSL). SSL is a Maxar Technologies company (formerly MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., or MDA). For its fiscal year 2017, Maxar reported $1.6 billion in revenues and net earnings of $100.4 million.

Gold has long been a vocal advocate for minimal regulation of the aerospace industry.

As I noted in my November 20 blog post, private-sector and some public-sector players in the space exploration community began lobbying in earnest for an easing of planetary protection requirements during the Obama administration. The lobbying forces for minimal regulation have ramped up their campaign in the current administration.

The committee’s planetary-protection recommendations generated an interesting discussion among NAC members.

One member of the NAC warned Gold to be careful of language. The use of the word “onerous” is problematic, he said. Referring to the need to revise a currently “onerous” policy could convey to the rest of the world that the United States wants to ease the way for commercial development of space.

“My problem with [the term planetary protection],” Gold said, “is the breadth of the term.”

(To my mind, that’s the point – as astrobiologists have come to realize, life is a planetary phenomenon.  If we’re looking for life in other planetary environments, we need to ensure that those environments remain pristine.)

NAC ex-officio member Fiona Harrison – chair of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board – and Meenakshi Wadwha, chair of the NAC’s science committee – both defended the use of the term, citing its long history and the need for further consideration of whether it should be retired or not.

“We will look at utilization of the term,” Gold said.

Gold told the NAC that, regarding planetary protection, “There isn’t a dispute between the human space flight industry and science.” The more missions we have, the more science can be done, he said.

(I disagree. There is a conflict between the goals of human space flight advocates who argue that current planetary protection policy is unduly restrictive and planetary scientists who are interested in exploring potentially habitable environments for signs of extant life. If an extraterrestrial environment is contaminated by terrestrial biology, it is no longer useful as a place to search for evidence of indigenous life.)

NASA associate administrator for space science Thomas Zurbuchen told the NAC, “Clearly times have changed…. The way we think about life today is very different than it was” when planetary protection policy was first established. “Progress in science must come in…. We want to change this policy regimen…. We have to strike a balance” between protecting future science and enabling exploration, he said.

(I do not know whether Zurbuchen favors relaxing planetary protection requirements or whether he favors bring planetary protection requirements into alignment with current science, as recommended by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board in its 2018 review of planetary protection policy development processes. If the latter, then, from where I stand, planetary protection requirements will change, but not relax.)

Zurbuchen told the NAC he will assemble a multidisciplinary team of experts to review planetary protection policy, as the committee recommended. (Let’s hope the membership of this team is well balanced – not tilted in favor of industry, as the NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters is.)

Stay tuned.

* Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online has posted a good report on on this week’s NAC meeting, here: