November 16, 2020


In October 2020, NASA’s Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey committee received a manifesto from its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group (EDIWG). Written by NASA Ames Research Center public-communications specialist Frank Tavares — along with a group of eleven co-authors including noted activists drawn from the fields of anthropology, ethics, philosophy, decolonial theory, and women’s studies — and supported by a list of 109 signatories, “Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices” lacks technical merit. It is, nevertheless of great clinical interest, as it brilliantly demonstrates how the ideologies responsible for the destruction of university liberal-arts education can be put to work to abort space exploration as well. . . .

The EDIWG authors are equally clear as to the means by which human space exploration and development can be stopped: the “planetary protection” bureaucracy.

“Planetary protection” was originally proposed for two purposes. One was to assure that life-detection experiments sent to other worlds did not return false positives resulting from the transport of terrestrial microbes along with the spacecraft. The other was to avert the possibility that dangerous microbes from other worlds might be transported back to Earth. These two contingencies are known as forward and back contamination, respectively.

The risk of back contamination — by disease organisms returned by Mars missions in particular — is the planetary-protection concern that generates most of the coverage in popular journalism and entertainment media. However, it has no rational scientific basis. There cannot be pathogens on Mars because there are no plants or animals there for them to infect. As for free living microorganisms that might conceivably exist on Mars, we know that these cannot be a threat to the Earth’s biosphere because there has been natural transport of billions of tons of Martian materials to Earth for the past 4 billion years. In fact, it is estimated that every year, approximately 500 kilograms of rocks ejected from Mars via meteoric impact land on our planet. Close examination of these rocks has shown that large portions of them were never raised above 40 degrees Celsius during their entire career of ejection from Mars, flight through space, and reentry and landing on Earth. They were therefore never sterilized, and if any microbes had existed in them when they left the Red Planet, they readily could have survived the trip. If there are, or ever were, microbes on the Martian surface, they have long since arrived here in large numbers, and continue to do so today. So the very expensive alterations to Mars sample-return mission designs demanded by the NASA Planetary Protection Office to preclude release of Martian microbes on earth are as nonsensical as ordering the border patrol to search all cars crossing our northern border to make sure that no one is importing Canada geese.

As someone who once served on NASA’s Planetary Protection subcommittee, I can assure you that it wasn’t meant to protect against “colonialism and racism.”

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