Credit: NASA

 

Mars is a perplexing world, a complex planet to probe and one that does not easily give up all its stealthy truths – expressly if that globe is a remote abode for life.

A four-day online virtual event brought together some of the world’s top leaders and experts on Mars and space exploration to spotlight the on-going efforts to propel humans to the Red Planet.

It is clear that opening up Mars to the first footfalls of Earthlings is a daunting undertaking – and not just technologically.

Credit: NASA

Fatal attraction

In closing remarks of the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention, held October 15-18, society leader Robert Zubrin zeroed in on “planetary protectionists” versus “frontierists.”

Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin
Credit: Mars Society/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Zubrin said there is “need to loosen the bonds of this thing that calls itself the planetary protection program but is really a bureaucracy-in-ignorance protection program.”

They, the planetary protection group, have installed themselves in various bureaucracies, Zubrin said, and “want to use this to expand their power and are crippling the space program.” Furthermore, the planetary protection people, he said, “have so distorted and inverted the priorities…that they are a tremendous impediment.”

Zubrin said the frontierists are “quick to recognize that the planetary protection bureaucracy is fatal to their aspirations.”

Credit: Mars Society

Planetary footing

Earlier in the Mars Society convention, Elon Musk, visionary SpaceX rocketeer, underscored his Starship project that involves placing humans on planetary footing elsewhere, with Mars as a near-term objective and thereby have our species attain multi-planet status.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has a visionary space agenda for Mars.
Credit: Rob Varnas

 

“When the will and the way intersect we will have a multi-planet species,” Musk explained.

“You provide the way…we’ll provide the will,” responded the Mars Society’s Zubrin.

As for those concerned about contamination of life on Mars, Musk advised:

“Listen…anything that can survive on Mars is so freakin’ tough it’s insane. It is cold and there’s like a lot of UV radiation and it’s not going to be too worried about anything we send from Earth, let’s put it that way. It’s just tougher than anything on Earth,” Musk said.

Balance must be found

“Zubrin is absolutely correct that planetary protection rules should be loosened. If we don’t, we will not be able to send humans to the surface of Mars or anywhere else under the current rules,” said Chris Carberry, chief executive officer of Explore Mars, Inc., an organization that advocates for the human exploration of Mars by the 2030s.

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

However, planetary protection, forward and backward – that is, hauling life from Earth to Mars and the prospect of bringing Mars life back to Earth – “should not be abandoned completely,” Carberry told Inside Outer Space.

“Precautions need to be taken to help our search for indigenous life on Mars and protect the astronauts and Earth from potential back contamination,” Carberry said. “A balance must be found to accomplish these protections, but does not create a substantial impediment to human exploration on the surface of Mars.”

Taming Mars

“To say that Zubrin sounds like a broken record on this subject is both a measure of its repetitive nature, as well as the era in which someone might say something this ignorant and be considered ‘edgy,’” said John Rummel, a former and founding chair of the panel on planetary protection of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), an international confab of experts.

Rummel previously worked at NASA Headquarters (1986 to 1993 and 1998 to 2008) as the space agency’s senior scientist for astrobiology and as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer.

NASA’s next Mars explorer, the Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This subject is one that Zubrin’s followers like, Rummel told Inside Outer Space, “because most of them don’t believe in microbes (even ones that cause COVID-19), or can’t believe that such a benign place as Mars would wish them anything but well in their noble quest to tame it.”

Tsetse flies and Kudzu

Advocating knowing less about Mars than we do today, Rummel added, is no way to lead a group that might be, and should be, serious about making it possible for humans to live there.

“The concept of applying planetary protection principles to current and future Mars missions — to serve them, not to stop them — and the need to do so is akin to the situation faced by Europeans who ventured into places like Africa and North America without knowing anything about what they faced in terms of Tsetse flies and sleeping sickness, Aedes mosquitoes and Yellow Fever, or the problems with releasing starlings, gypsy moths, or Kudzu,” Rummel advised.

Answerable questions

One of the oft-stated motivations for going to Mars to live and work, Rummel added, is that one might find “life on Mars,” but that finding comes with no guarantees of a future friendship. “Introducing Earth microbes into an aquifer on Mars where it could mineralize and solidify the whole water source is just stupid,” he said.

Features called recurrent slope lineae (RSL) have been spotted on some Martian slopes in warmer months. Some scientists think RSL could be seasonal flows of salty water. Red arrows point out one 0.75-mile-long (1.2 kilometers) RSL in this image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The “planetary protection bureaucracy” as Zubrin labels it, is no impediment to Mars exploration and habitation for dozens of reasons, Rummel said.

Planetary protection is no impediment to a future on Mars, Rummel continued, but like wondering what Mars dust will do to a human lung if you breathe it in, planetary protection presents answerable questions and a potential need to mitigate difficult circumstances.

“Mars is not another Earth, and even Earth is not the paradise we wish it were, so it would be helpful, and perhaps even essential, for the Mars Society to help Zubrin fix that broken record and turn to a real analysis of the issues and answers that any potential move to another biosphere, or to start another biosphere, demands,” Rummel said. “To do otherwise is a foolish waste of time and talent, which we can’t really afford if we want to get to Mars anytime soon…with people, and in the face of whatever challenges Mars might bring to bear,” he concluded.

NASA 1976 Viking 2 lander image of the Mars Utopian Plain.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

 

Enemies of science

In his convention remarks, Zubrin made it clear that not only are planetary protectionists opponents of the frontierists, he also explained how they are enemies of science.

“I am devoted to Mars both for the search for life and for creating an open space frontier. The planetary protection program is inimical to both. Science needs an open frontier,” Zubrin later told Inside Outer Space.

Zubrin said that there has not been a life detection experiment sent to Mars since 1976 because of planetary protection guidelines. There are now some scientists who want to send a life detection experiment to the Red Planet, but need to couch it as an investigation to show that a certain region of Mars has no life, so astronauts should be sent there, he said.

Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

“That is absurd. Imagine waiting half a century to send a life detection experiment to Mars, and then spending a decade of the lives of a group of talented scientists and engineers and a billion dollars of the taxpayers’ money on a life detection mission, only to target to a place where it is least likely to find life. That is the nuttiness that the ‘planetary protection’ program is demanding of us,” Zubrin said.

We should send life detection experiments to Mars to find life, “not to avoid finding life,” Zubrin added. “And if we find life…that is precisely where we should send astronauts. We should send explorers to the most scientifically interesting places on the planet, not to the least interesting.”

Resources

Mars Society leader Robert Zubrin’s interview of SpaceX’s Elon Musk can be viewed here:

https://youtu.be/y5Aw6WG4Dww

For Zubrin’s closing remarks, including talking points on SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Starship plans, looking for life on the Red Planet, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, robotic versus human exploration, along with the technical challenges ahead, go to:

https://youtu.be/7F3RVIljLac?t=6

Zubrin’s closing comments can be viewed at: 3:10:12/3:30:42

3 Responses to “Red Planet “Protectionists” Draws Humans-to-Mars Resistance”

  • In a new 2020 booklet published by The National Academies Press “Assessment of the Report of NASA’s Planetary Protection Independent Review Board”. The book opens with the statement:

    “The goal of planetary protection is to control, to the degree possible, the biological cross-contamination of planetary
    bodies. Two accepted rationales support this objective. Planetary protection policies seek, first, to preserve
    the ability to conduct future studies relating to the origin of life and prebiotic chemical evolution in extraterrestrial
    environments, and second, to protect the Earth’s biosphere from potential harm arising from the return to Earth of
    possibly hazardous materials—for example, replicating biological entities—from other planetary bodies. Other,
    but equivalent, formulations of these twin rationales exist.”

    Ironically, the issue of life on Mars was abandoned by NASA in 1976 after the twin Viking Landers both found evidence for microbial life in two areas of Mars, Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, each separated by 4,000 miles. The positive indications for life came from the Viking Labeled Release Experiment which conducted experiments under a variety of environmental controls. However, because no organic molecules could be found by the Viking Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, it was decided by the majority of scientists working on the Viking mission that without organic molecules life on Mars would be impossible. Jump ahead 47 years and we find that NASA’s Curiosity rover has found organic molecules in the soil, rocks and atmosphere. In fact long chain fatty acids and kerogens have been found by Curiosity. These findings alone should now reopen the case that the Viking Lander Labeled Release life detection experiments most likely found microbial metabolism in the soil of Mars.

    The Viking Labeled Release experiment now stands as a warning to those who want to bring samples of Mars back to Earth for examination. It also serves as a warning to those who want to send humans to Mars before we know how any indigenous Martian microbes or viruses might react with any life from Earth.

    Since founding the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return in 1999 (www.icamsr.org) I have listened to many of the arguments and criticisms by Robert Zubrin and others who feel there isn’t a need to send additional life detection experiments to Mars to gather further information.

    While going through some of my older ICAMSR emails I came across this one I emailed to Elon Musk on September 4th 2001:

    “Dear Elon,

    Before investing your money in a plan to put humans on Mars, perhaps you should rethink your strategy and invest your money with pharmaceutical companies that would have the first opportunity to examine Martian organisms. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support that Mars not only had life, but has at least microbial life forms today. How valuable would indigenous Martian microbes be? Sending humans to Mars would certainly contaminate the red planet. Would this interfere with life sciences studies? Sure, perhaps even to the point of rendering data about life on Mars useless. Then again, if the Martian microbes are pathogenic or create lethal toxins, then the human crew would be in peril and would never be allowed to return to Earth. Here are three thought provoking articles I thought you might enjoy reading. Robert Zubrin is blind to the contamination and possible lethality of Martian microbes. The November/ December 2000 issue of The Planetary Report proved that. Some of the comments from that issue with NASA’s planetary protection officer John Rummel, JPL’s Ken Nealson and SETI’s Margaret Race say it all:

    A CASE FOR CAUTION by John D. Rummel page 4 and 5. Comments from Rummel…”So off the mark that I found joy in simply contemplating an answer… Straw-man
    arguments placed for his own convenience”.

    HAZARDOUS UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE by Margaret Race” pages 5, 6, and 7. Comments from Race: “Irresponsible and inaccurate statements… I’d rather listen to the National Research Council than an errant rocket scientist when it comes to protecting my home planet”.

    PRACTICE SAFE SCIENCE by Kenneth H. Nealson page 7. From Nealson: “An interesting statement from someone who has no credentials in biology, microbiology, evolution,epidemiology, or pathology… In general his so-called experts base their opinions on little more than belief.”

    Ethics of exploring Mars? Link below:

    http://www.wff.nasa.gov/~code584/projects/mlupisella/

    Issues involving planetary protection:

    http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/ci/31/i08/html/08digregorio.html

    Sincerely yours,

    Barry E. DiGregorio – Executive Director for ICAMSR”

    On September 7th, 2001 I received this reply from Elon Musk indicating he agree with caution

    “Hi Barry,

    I certainly agree with you that we need to move cautiously in exploring Mars and should do nothing that might irreversibly contaminate the planet. We should also expend a great deal of effort in understanding the nature of possible life both historic and current on Mars. At some point, I think it will make sense to put humans on Mars, but only after all these issues are addressed.
    Regards,

    Elon”

    I think that this email exchange from 2001 shows that the only solution to solving the issue of life on Mars is to send additional dedicated life detection technology including a microscope capable of resolving individual bacteria. To do so otherwise and send humans or return samples of Mars to Earth to before we have more data, flies in the face of the scientific method.

    Sincerely,

    Barry E. DiGregorio – Director for ICAMSR
    https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/deepspace2018/pdf/3077.pdf

  • In a recent 2020 report (https://www.nap.edu/read/25773/chapter/2) published by the National Academy Press it says an opening statement “The goal of planetary protection is to control, to the degree possible, the biological cross-contamination of planetary bodies. Two accepted rationales support this objective. Planetary protection policies seek, first, to preserve the ability to conduct future studies relating to the origin of life and prebiotic chemical evolution in extraterrestrial environments, and second, to protect the Earth’s biosphere from potential harm arising from the return to Earth of possibly hazardous materials—for example, replicating biological entities—from other planetary bodies. Other, but equivalent, formulations of these twin rationales exist.” Why would anyone who holds these sound principles to exploring life on other worlds be viewed as “enemies of science”?

    Yet that is exactly what Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin calls planetary protectionists as “Enemies of Science”. I suppose this statement should come as no big surprise because it has been Zubrin’s position for the last twenty years or more.

    I remember reading the November/ December 2000 issue of The Planetary Report published by the Planetary Society in which Zubrin compared any Martian microbial life discovered as dangerous as Canadian Geese are to North America. Some of the comments made about Zubrin in that issue from the planetary protection community from the likes of John Rummel, JPL’s Ken Nealson and SETI’s Margaret Race are still valid:

    A CASE FOR CAUTION by John D. Rummel page 4 and 5. Comments from Rummel…”So off the mark that I found joy in simply contemplating an answer… Straw-man arguments placed for his own convenience”.

    HAZARDOUS UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE by Margaret Race” pages 5, 6, and 7 Comments from Race: “Irresponsible and inaccurate statements… I’d rather listen to the National Research Council than an errant rocket scientist when it comes to protecting my home planet”.

    PRACTICE SAFE SCIENCE by Kenneth H. Nealson page 7. Regarding Zubrin’s views of planetary protection he says, “An interesting statement from someone who has no credentials in biology, microbiology, evolution, epidemiology, or pathology…… In general his so-called experts base their opinions on little more than belief.”

    Not even the recent spread of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide and its cost in human lives and the cost to the economies of the world, change his mind. I would think the astrobiology community will offer future resistance to bringing samples of Mars directly to Earth or to send humans prematurely. Why do we have to risk astronauts or Earth’s biosphere in order to examine Martian samples? We have many new technologies that could surely settle the question of extant life on the surface of Mars or in a biohazard containment facility as part of a lunar base. So why is Zubrin in such a hurry to get humans on Mars that he is willing to risk their lives? Does seeing boots on Mars in his lifetime mean more than answering one of the most important questions asked in all of human existence – to know if evolution occurred on Mars as it did on Earth or even before? The consequences of ignoring planetary protection’s greatest laws 1) Not to contaminate other planets or icy moons with Earth organisms and 2) Returning samples of alien biology (from Mars) directly to Earth are too great. Who should be held responsible in the event of a back contamination pandemic from Mars if one occurs? The word “if” becomes very big here. That is why we should make every effort to first study any characteristics of Martian microorganisms on Mars by sending robotic rovers with additional life detection experiments along with microscope capable of resolving objects the size of bacteria. Why this has not yet been done by NASA in spite of some positive results obtained by the 1976 Viking lander Labeled Release biology experiment? The Viking LR biology results are a warning to proceed cautiously. Only in a well-conceived step by step approach to examine life wherever it is found in our solar system can we will ensure the safety of our planet and future of any astronauts sent there. Calling those of us who would uphold these principals as “enemies of science” is both unscientific and dangerous.

    Barry E. DiGregorio – Director for ICAMSR (www.icamsr.org)

    https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/deepspace2018/pdf/3077.pdf

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