WASHINGTON – NASA announced on July 9 two new directives regarding the protection of the planet for missions to the Moon and Mars that implement the recommendations of an independent review committee last year.
The two directives, announced by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a “Moon Dialogs” webinar, are part of NASA’s effort to modernize decades-old guidelines that the agency believes may hinder its long-term human exploration plans term.
The directives reflect “how NASA has evolved in its way of thinking as it relates to harmful biological contamination forward and backward on the surface of the moon and of course on Mars,” said Bridenstine.
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Under the new directive, most of the moon will be placed in category 1, which does not impose mission requirements. The exceptions will be the polar regions – north of 86 degrees north latitude and south of 79 degrees south latitude – which will remain in category 2. The regions around the Apollo landing “and other historical sites” will also be in category 2, mainly to protect the biological materials left by the Apollo crew landings.
“NASA is changing its thinking about how we will move forward on the moon,” said Bridenstine. “Some parts of the moon, from a scientific perspective, need to be protected more than other parts of the moon from direct biological contamination.”
The second directive concerns future human missions to Mars, a planet with much higher planetary protection requirements. These requirements include setting strict limits on the level of terrestrial contamination that many have claimed to be incompatible with human missions.
“We can’t go to Mars with humans if the principle we live in is that we can’t have microbial substances with us because it’s not possible,” said Bridenstine.
The Mars directive does not change the planetary protection requirements for missions to that planet, but instead asks for studies on how to do it. Such studies range from research that can be done on the International Space Station to potentially sending a precursor robotic mission to a location near the proposed landing site for the manned mission to measure which organic materials are present.
“NASA will develop risk-informed decision-making implementation strategies for human missions to Mars, which explain and balance the needs of human space exploration, science, business and security,” says the directive.
Such an effort, Bridenstine said, would be a long-term process that will require further policy changes in the future. “As we learn more, we will have to continue making changes,” he said.
The two directives implement some of the recommendations of the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board, which published a report last October calling for the modernization of planetary protection protocols. Among his recommendations was the reclassification of much of the moon from Category 2 to Category 1, as well as for NASA to develop guidelines for planetary protection for future missions to Mars.
“Planetary protection hasn’t really looked under the hood in a bottom-up assessment in about 40 years,” said Alan Stern, the planetary scientist who chaired that independent review, in a group discussion after Bridenstine’s remarks . “During that time, so many things changed in so many areas.”
NASA’s directives apply to agency missions as well as to those in which the agency participates in some way, such as joint missions with other agencies or commercial missions where NASA is a customer. It does not, however, apply to missions from other space agencies or strictly commercial missions.
“NASA’s provisional directives exist, but what NASA has has a huge influence on the private sector,” said Mike Gold, chief executive officer for international relations and interaction at NASA, during the panel discussion. “We need to set the right precedent. The [directives] that we propose today will demonstrate a path for the private sector “.
The directives also do not affect the international guidelines on planetary protection maintained by the Space Research Committee (COSPAR). However, when the report of the independent review committee was published last fall, people such as Len Fisk, president of COSPAR, said they expected the recommended changes to eventually be accepted by COSPAR.
A space law expert said the approach should be sufficient. “It is an evolving process,” said Tanja Masson-Zwaan, deputy director of the International Institute of Air and Space Law at the University of Leiden. Countries have voluntarily implemented these guidelines for decades, he noted, as a means of adhering to the Outer Space Treaty requirement to avoid “harmful contamination” of celestial bodies.
In the panel discussion he rejected the idea of a new international organization to oversee planetary protection. “In pragmatic terms, this is not something that will happen, but I don’t even think it is necessary.”