The Moon

By sending probes to the Moon and other planets, there have been fears of contaminating them with earthly organisms. By returning them (and people) to Earth, there may be a threat of bringing alien species back to Earth that would infect its citizens and wipe out humanity. Michael Crichton's book and movie, The Andromeda Strain, conjured just such a possibility.

As with most issues involving space, at least in the United States, Apollo was a genesis. While there were some scientists who were concerned about "forward contamination," the major worry of Apollo scientists was backward contamination. The Moon was lifeless, but there was worry over the very remote chance that Apollo astronauts could pick up some unknown infection from a lunar source and bring it back to Earth.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration began sterilizing robotic surveyors sent to the Moon to look for launching sites. There was a debate among technical specialists about whether and how much sterilization was necessary to prevent forward contamination. NASA decided to create contamination facilities for Moon samples (rocks, soil, etc.) brought back by astronauts; they even "decontaminated" the astronauts themselves.

These concerns helped stimulate a new scientific field in the 1960s called initially "exobiology," later "astrobiology." Funded by NASA, this field aimed primarily at the discovery of extraterrestrial life [36]. Worried about the contamination issue (forward and backward), exobiologists and their allies pushed for an international policy to head off problems. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty included this statement:

".parties to the treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for their purpose.." [37]

The Outer Space Treaty was signed by many nations, including the Soviet Union and the United States.

When Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, they were quarantined briefly, along with Moon rocks and paraphernalia. Suitably decontaminated, they were released. No harm came to them or planet Earth form lunar life forms. There were none. The astronauts certainly added human pollution to the Moon, but the lunar surface was already cratered with much worse environmental impacts from space. Apollo ended, but exobiology as a field was stimulated and continued, as did a small office at NASA that concerned itself with planetary protection as a long-term issue.

6.5.2 Mars

After Apollo, manned journeys to the Moon ceased, but the planetary program of robotic probes continued. In 1976, NASA's largest and most ambitious planetary mission up to this time, Viking, was launched. Viking's connection to planetary protection was explicit. Its most publicized goal was to land equipment on Mars and conduct experiments to determine if life might exist there. NASA went to great lengths to sterilize the equipment so that it would not take bacteria to Mars, thereby obviating the experiments. However, while the mission succeeded in landing equipment on Mars, the tests were inconclusive and, for many, negative on the issue of Martian life [38].

The issue of life on Mars faded after Viking, but was revived dramatically in 1996. What helped in rejuvenating interest was the claim by some scientists that a meteorite discovered in Antarctica contained fossilized bacteria from the Red Planet. In the next year, NASA's Pathfinder probe landed successfully on Mars, and its Sojourner rover crawled along the surface, sending pictures back to Earth that were riveting. After two mishaps with Mars missions, NASA subsequently sent Spirit and Opportunity, two more probes, which landed successfully in 2003

and revealed credible evidence of past water on the surface. Where there was water, there was the possibility of life as we know it. Exobiologists, now called astrobiologists, had new hope.

The "Holy Grail" of the unmanned space program is now a mission to Mars that would return a sample of soil to Earth. The various reconnaissance and landing missions underway in the early 21st century would ultimately lead to this demanding mission. Earlier missions hope to find the places with signs of previous water, those most likely to have spawned life in the past. In the late 1990s, NASA planned a sample return mission for launch as early as 2005. When the two Mars missions launched in 1999 failed, the Mars Sample Return goal slipped to 2011 and was postponed again subsequently for financial reasons. When that mission does eventually take place, the issue of forward and especially backward contamination—from Mars to Earth—will surely be raised.

Among advocates of human spaceflight to Mars, the most emotional issue for those with environmental values concerns the very distant future. There will come a time when human settlement will commence, but even before then, we may wonder: what will man do to Mars to make it less hostile an environment?

Various members of the Mars Society, the principal private advocacy group for Mars exploration, have idealistic goals for the Red Planet. Like the L5 Society mentioned earlier, they seek utopian settlements beyond Earth as a way for the human species to start over again. This time humanity would create the perfect society in a pristine place, a place that it would keep pristine. They see Mars as a "New Eden."

But others in the Mars Society speak of "terraforming" Mars. Terraforming refers to planetary engineering, building an artificial environment, and making Mars safe for man. This is technology development on a grand scale, creating a new environment compatible with human comfort.

The two competing visions of a future Mars divide the activists. On the one side are those who see Mars as the next frontier, much as the New World was a frontier after Columbus or the Western U.S. was a frontier in the nineteenth century. They use terms such as "manifest destiny." The other side sees Mars as a pure, almost sacred place to be conserved and protected. Visions also divide variously on the role of government, with one group wanting as little as possible, and the other seeing government as a necessary force, whether to stimulate planetary engineering or protect the planet from such action.

It is remarkable how basic values and disputes carry forward from Earth to space, even space policy far ahead in distance and time. Space is indeed a frontier, but it is also an environment. "Frontier" and "environment," as terms, evoke a vast range of values and political agendas, many incompatible with one another. They have in the past, and will continue in the future [39].

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