NASA’s Outdated Policy Risks to Contaminate Earth, Affect or Kill Billions of People

We dream of exploring space, and we can finally get out there, but what about contamination of the worlds we visit and the other way around? According to a report conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, NASA’s planetary protection policies which were adopted a hundred years ago should be reassessed.

The report is titled “Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes.” It warns that samples from different bodies in space can contain microbes and that “such microbes might pose a health risk to the returning crew as well as the public on Earth.” Moreover, astronauts exposed to a long space mission could generate microbes to mutate. Astronauts return on Earth with the mutated microbes, risking the health of billions of people.

‘Biorisk’ Experiment – Aggressive Bacteria Back to Earth

The report is based on an experiment conducted by Russian scientists – ‘Biorisk’. They took microorganisms from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) and saw that they were able to survive in harsh space environment on the surface of the station. The experiment included an analysis of 68 organisms (bacteria, insects, vertebrate animals and higher plants). Bacteria mutated and on their return to Earth, it was more aggressive and resistant to antibiotics.

The chair of the committee that authored the report, Joseph Alexander, said:

“Soundly framed and executed planetary protection policies will play a critical role in ensuring that space exploration efforts will deliver unambiguous answers about the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system.”

New Protocols Needed

With better planetary protection policies, scientists will know if the discovered bacteria or other signs of life are native to the planets visited and were not brought from Earth. While NASA is focusing on bringing samples to Earth, Scott Hubbard, one of the lead authors of the report and Professor of Aeronautics at Stanford, explains why the policies must be reassessed:

“NASA is undertaking much more complex science missions than in the past, and at the same time they’re having to operate under cost restraints and schedule restraints. These missions bring up all sorts of issues about possible contamination, both going there and bringing samples back.”

The authors of the report added that NASA must get advice from microbiologists and geneticists to know which microbes could cause issues for spacecraft.

Hubbard concludes that NASA should have a long-term plan, protocols, and mission to prepare regulations in advance of the missions, and not when the “mission is already underway or getting started.”

Rex Austin

Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere