Credit: SpaceX

Commentary by William B. Miller, Jr., M.D.

It was the greatest car ad ever conceived. A red Tesla Roadster was launched into space with a jaunty spaceman mannequin at the wheel. As it streaks around our solar system at speeds of seven miles per second, its dashboard screen reads a playful, ‘Don’t panic’.

Don’t panic! Tesla Roadster en route and outbound.
Credit: SpaceX/Screen Grab.

Initial press coverage was fawning. The biggest question was, “Is this art or advertising?” It was never mentioned that the car and its mannequin are loaded with microbes. There hadn’t even been any real attempt to clean it prior to launch. No big deal. It’s just floating in space and won’t impact a planet for a million years or more. However, its elliptical orbit around the Sun has it crossing Mar’s orbit every 18.8 months. It will often get close.

Credit: Ben Pearson

No one seems to care that this craft will gradually deteriorate over time from the impact of innumerable micrometeorites during its endless loops throughout the solar system. And no one seems to understand that particles of those micrometeorites will ricochet off the car and mannequin and carry bits and pieces of it wherever they go. And no one has noted that on every miniscule bit, there will a new set of traveling companions. Wherever those particles go, associated microbes will now circulate with those particles, some of which will travel outward for light years.

It is actually the same for all the NASA spacecrafts that have ever been launched. To NASA’s credit, they have actually tried to be careful. NASA has been rightfully concerned about the possibility of sending our planetary life out into space. To that end, they enacted rigorous ‘clean’ rooms. Prior to launch, vehicles were carefully scrubbed to get rid of any lurking microbes. When our space craft were launched, they were thought to be sterile.

As InSight’s solar arrays unfurl in a pre-launch test, specially garbed test engineers carefully inspect their deployment. The spacecraft heads for Mars in May.
Credit: Barbara David

Unfortunately, what NASA believed to be true, was not. It is now understood that the culture techniques that NASA relied upon to determine sterility were utterly insufficient. In our contemporary era, there are new tools of genetic assessment that permit our identification of a much wider range of microorganisms than in prior decades. In fact, it is now known that fewer than 10% of all microbes can be cultured in the standard manner that NASA was diligently applying. Therefore, the tests that NASA relied upon to issue their declarations of sterility were unfortunately completely inaccurate.

Water-dwelling micro-animals called Tardigrades.
Courtesy: P. Lubin

Although the NASA spacecrafts were culture negative upon launch, they were actually abounding with covert microbial life. Furthermore, we now know that many microbes can withstand every rigor of space flight. In the vacuum of space, with its absolute cold and bursts of destructive radiation, humans would instantly die. Yet, some microbes do not, nor do singular small animals, called Tardigrades. These incredibly resilient microscopic eight-legged creatures can withstand all the extremes of space. We know that this is true, since some of them have even survived reentry back to our planet from other space flights.

It is these exact findings that inform us that single most important event in our entire human history is currently transpiring. This unheralded event is the passage of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts beyond our solar system and exiting into interstellar space. What makes this passage so momentous is that both of these crafts carry life.

As originally envisioned, the mission of the Voyager spacecrafts was to study the outer planets of our solar system. In this regard, that mission has been highly successful. The Voyager craft left Earth in 1977, arrived at Jupiter in 1979, and then passed by Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, to arrive at Neptune by 1989. Important physical discoveries were cataloged at each planet, such as the magnetospheres of Uranus and Neptune. By mission design, there was never any possibility of return. Instead, the craft were tasked towards an endless continuation into deep space.

Now Voyager 1 is over 13 billion miles from Earth, with Voyager 2 close behind. Currently, they are just at the margin of the heliosphere which is the large zone influenced by our Sun. Thereafter, interstellar space looms and the Sun’s influence rapidly fades.

Voyager spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/JPL


Although the milestones of the Voyager craft are being minutely detailed, NASA astronomers remain completely mum about the most portentious aspect of this Voyager mission. That silence is not entirely surprising since, until the Tesla car launch, the Voyager mission represents the most egregious example of unintended consequences in human history.

Though this event receives no attention, it is immensely more significant than any war in human history, or any ideology, or all of our art and culture. Without planning to do so, we have launched microbial life from this planet. Now, for endless eons, that tenacious life will be propelled outward into deep space. Everywhere Voyager goes, life will be shed. It is the same, but even more so, for the supremely egotistical Tesla in space. Both are instances of singular technical achievement and delinquent government oversight.

There is a theory of the origin of life that suggests that it began on Earth as an instance of Panspermia. In effect, life on this planet began elsewhere, finding a home here and thriving. Now, without explicit intent, both of the Voyager spacecrafts and the Tesla advertisement have begun the process of seeding of life throughout the Cosmos. In our uniformed hubris, we have become an unintentional agency of Panspermia. Now, in a direct sense, we have become a Cosmic invasive species.

Let it be our earnest hope that we will be forgiven.

Dr. Bill Miller had been a physician in academic and private practice for over thirty years. He is the author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. Miller is an internationally recognized evolutionary biologist and an expert on the emerging science of the microbiome. He is the author/co-author of numerous academic papers on the microbiome and evolution, serves as guest editor of a major academic biology journal and is co-editor of a forthcoming textbook on developmental and evolutionary biology.  Connect with him on Twitter, @billmillermd.

2 Responses to “Without Planning to do so, We Have Launched Microbial Life From This Planet”

  • John Rummel says:

    This article was not great, and subtly inaccurate, as well.

    We have always planned to launch microbes (including the ones wrapped in astronaut skin!). This should not be a big surprise — if you think about it.

    For example, we never intended to sterilize the Voyagers, nor have we intended to sterilize any Mars mission since Viking (which, btw, we knew wasn’t completely sterile at the time). Complete spacecraft sterilization (beyond the Viking level) hasn’t been a goal since the middle of the Ranger series to the Moon.

    The focus is, and has been, on controlling and limiting the level of microbial contamination, versus removing it altogether. Total removal is something that needn’t be true, at launch, even for Europa-bound landers (and Clipper, too).

    A planetary protection policy needs to deal with the best scientific understanding of the potential for contamination, and then add a dose of caution to sway the balance. It should not be applied to missions that do not encounter other solar system bodies. As it is, the data received by NASA, via the FAA, indicates that the Tesla carried into space by the Falcon will not interact with another planet through the lifetime of concern for impact under the current policies (>50 years), and that it is more likely to interact with Earth before it intersects some other body. My own opinion about the actual Tesla-in-space question is that it is completely benign — no harm, no foul.

    Life marches on, but I believe that this article was off the mark.

    • Leonard David says:

      I greatly appreciate that you forwarded John Rummel’s comments. I am grateful for him insofar as he has so splendidly made my point for me. The thrust of my article was that there was, at first, a lack of understanding of the extent of microbial life that we were projecting from this planet outward. That is surely forgivable. Now that we know better, we have substituted indifference. ….. a collective ….. ‘whatever’. Again, as in the prior instance, there is a fundamental lack of insight into the microbial sphere by engineers.
      Mr. Rummel correctly notes that the Tesla is not projected to directly impact a planet for an extremely long time. However, beyond that issue of direct trajectories, Mr. Rummel’s analysis is faulty. He is thinking macro and I am correctly concentrating on the micro. That is, micro particles will take microorganisms with them after their impact with the Tesla and careen off it, …. for however long it is in space. The same with the Voyager spacecraft. Life will be propelled outward by this process, no matter Tesla’s final disposition. Furthermore, microbes are extremophiles, i.e. they can withstand the conditions of space for extremely long time periods, and furthermore, they are adaptable problem-solving living forms of life. Hence, as I have said, the consequences of our actions as agents of Panspermia are possibly of cosmic significance that outweighs any conceivable action of our own here on Earth beyond atomic destruction of the planet. Since the former has already occurred, and the latter is unlikely, thoughtful emphasis should properly placed.
      The specific reason for the article was to get people to think about this singular issue that is treated with indifference but should not be so. I encourage the debate.
      Best regards, and thank you for publishing my article. You have my permission to post my rebuttal if you wish to do so.
      William B. Miller, Jr., M.D.

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