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The Planetary Protection Racket

It isn't just another useless, overpaid bureaucrat, but a crippler to any mission to Mars.

The request by NASA for a new "Planetary Protection Officer" salaried at $187,000 per year has provoked some hilarity, but the problem is much greater than the hiring of another useless overpaid bureaucrat. In fact, NASA's planetary protection program serves no function but to cripple the space program at a cost to the taxpayers of billions of dollars.

The program calls for protecting Mars and Earth from "contaminating" each other, but there is not one shred of evidence to support the notion that life of any kind, let alone pathogens of macrofauna or macroflora, or free-living microbes with superior adaptation to the terrestrial environment than native species, exists on the Martian surface.

The Viking 1 and 2 landers directly tested Martian soil, and found it free of organic material down to one part per billion accuracy. The Martian dust is mixed on a global basis. If there is no organic material in the dust at the Viking landing sites, there is none in it anywhere. The Viking landers also detected strong oxidizing agents in the Martian dust, which would destroy any microbes exposed to it. So we not only know that the Martian soil is sterile, we also know why it must be sterile. Even in the absence of the sterilizing oxidizers detected by Viking, conditions on the Martian surface are such so as to preclude active microbial metabolism. Active life cannot exist without liquid water. There is no liquid water on the Martian surface.

If, despite all the above, there somehow were Martian surface microbial life, then it is already here. The Earth is struck by about 1,000 pounds of Martian meteorite a year. These rocks have been ejected from three different sites during the past 10 million years or so. A conservative linear extrapolation backwards (conservative because impact rates were higher in the past) over the past 3.6 billion years then indicates that the terrestrial biosphere has already received some 3.6 trillion pounds of samples from Mars coming from over a thousand different sites scattered across the planet. Examination of samples of this material show that perhaps 10 percent of it is ejected unshocked, which means bacteria could survive the ejection event. There is also little doubt sizable fractions of the ejected putative bacteria could survive the interplanetary transfer and re-entry at Earth as well.

In light of this, planetary protectors need to explain why building a Maginot Line around NASA's 1 pound sample is a worthwhile activity while Mother Nature, laughing at their quarantine orders, continues to deliver thousands of pounds of uninspected and unsterilized materials to Earth.

The argument is not whether measures should be taken to protect the Mars sample from terrestrial contamination. Everyone agrees that such measures should be taken to preserve the scientific value of the sample. The issue is whether foundationless fears should be allowed to distort the mission so as to increase the chance of failure. NASA lost two Ranger lunar missions due to completely pointless spacecraft sterilization measures demanded by the planetary protection folks.

Now, as a result of their demands, in 1998 Jet Propulsion Lab adopted a mission protocol for the Mars Sample Return stating that if signal confirming sample confinement was lost from a returning sample craft, the return vehicle would be directed to bypass the Earth.

Think about that. We have already spent three decades planning a Mars Sample Return mission, and it is likely we'll spend at least another. Before it's done, several billion dollars will be spent in an effort to get a sample from Mars. The planetary protection office has greatly increased the cost and risk, and delayed the schedule of the Mars Sample Return, by requiring that it be done with multiple spacecraft and in-space rendezvous in order the "break the chain of contact with Mars."

If not for them, using the 2,200-pound landing capability demonstrated on the Curiosity mission, we could land a fully-fueled two-stage Mars Ascent Vehicle with a Spirit-sized rover, capable of gathering samples and sending them in a capsule directly back to Earth. Such a mission could be readily accomplished with a single Atlas V launch. Instead, the agency has turned the mission into a long-term, multi-launch, multi-spacecraft vision to satisfy its charlatans.

Having inflicted such extraordinary costs, the back contamination worthies still argue all that time, effort, money, talent, and potential for discovery of the mission should be tossed like garbage into interplanetary space to appease tabloid fears over a non-existent menace.

If some crank were to destroy the Mona Lisa out of fear that witchcraft might be associated with the painting, most people would consider his action a crime against art. Now we have space agency officials preparing similar irrational vandalism against the Mars Sample Return. Perhaps it is time that NASA rethought its "planetary protection" program. Continuing to lend credence to the irrational could be very costly indeed.

Even worse, there can be no guarantee a human Mars mission won't crash, spreading Earth microbes all over the Martian landscape. If so, so long as the Planetary Protection office exists there can be no human missions to Mars – not by NASA, SpaceX or any other American organization.

NASA is currently spending around $10 billion per year on a human spaceflight program whose supposed objective is a human mission to Mars. At the same time, it is funding a department whose purpose requires it to prevent such a mission from ever happening.

That's just nuts. The Planetary Protection Office needs to be shut down.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Foter

Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy of Lakewood, Colo., and the author of The Case for Mars. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    All we can hope for is cutting these government agencies by 50%+ and then the agency needs to decide what positions are really necessary to complete their mission.

  • Released||

    This is waaay beyond bloated government. Zubrin mentioning the salary level was a rhetorical mistake. It's a red herring. What is on stake here is the survival of life on/from Earth. Pretty important. This our mission shouldn't let be obstructed by some paranoiac not-wanna-do-anythingers.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "NASA is currently spending around $10 billion per year on a human spaceflight program whose supposed objective is a human mission to Mars."

    I want to know what the hell happened to our NASA Muslim outreach program.

  • Rich||

    The Planetary Protection Office shut it down?

    *** ducks ***

  • Longtobefree||

    That IS the program. All Muslims have priority on all outbound flights.

  • Released||

    At least they should enjoy free seating in the fire trench during launch.

  • Jerryskids||

    I'm sure there's an argument that the Mars protocol is practice, developing a protocol for exploratory trips to planets where life may exist. Like Europa, where NASA knows life already exists but they're keeping it a secret from us.

  • Hank Stamper||

    All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landings there.

  • sarcasmic||

    I saw that movie.

  • dantheserene||

    The eleven word version is from the book. The movie added some extra fluff.

  • Mickey Rat||

    I missed Lucifer's birth?

  • Cyto||

    Yeah, that's the disinformation campaign they put out to keep you looking like a crazy person. "Ooooh! There's life on Europa!!" When all along they've been working with the Greys and the Reptilians. People used to work with the Anunnaki a long time ago, but once the Greys started working with the US government they quit working with us. Anunnaki hate the Greys.

    Some people say the Andromedans have been here forever, but that's just another stupid legend, like the Nordics.

  • SQRLSY One||

    As an Arcturian, I feel insulted and left out, that you have neglected and ignored me and my kind!!! Triggered, I am!!!

  • CE||

    My understanding was that the Anunnaki didn't so much work with humans as exploit them for slave labor to mine gold. Until one of the alien overlords gave humanity too much information and we kicked them off our planet, and advised them never to return.

  • Released||

    Nothing anyone will agree upon. Mars (as the Moon) is free for grabs no matter what any politicians of academics say.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Personally, I favor a Green Mars or a Blue Mars over the Red Mars luddites.

  • Azathoth!!||

    THIS

    Because that is precisely what we are dealing with here. Idiots who read those books and have adopted the idea that we should leave Mars dead.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    No climate change for you!

  • SQRLSY One||

    India or China will beat the USA to Mars and back, and they will give neither a flipping fuck, or a fucking flip, about witches or planetary cooties or any of all this horseshit. Then there will be a hue and cry about "who lost Mars".

    The Koch brothers will be blamed!

  • SQRLSY One||

    For some roughly analogous history to show that I am correct about this, see the history of who was first to reach the South Pole. The British were all scientific, and diverted a LOT of time and resources to scientific data collection, and other sentimentalities. The Norwegians were hard-core realists, and just-get-it-done types. The Norwegians did it, and the Brits died.

  • ||

    As much as it chagrins me to say it, the only caveat would/could be Elon Musk. His ship would launch from US soil using US and Chinese money and equal parts Chinese, American, and Indian flight and ground crews. The second voyage/supply missions would launch from China or India and land in the US.

    All sides, including S. Africa, shout #MarsBAE! on Twitter in an attempt to claim credit. History records that Russian hackers actually get it posted first.

  • reasontert||

    Yeah, and the Norwegian dogs died as well. They used the sled dogs like a multi-stage space rocket. As they used up supplies and needed fewer dogs, they killed and ate them.

  • Cyto||

    I dunno about that. It looks like SpaceX is serious about getting to Mars and if they can continue improving their processes and efficiency, they may have the financial resources to do it. They are talking about having 52 launches next year. And they are working on that internet constellation that should rake in a butt-ton of money.

    So I'm betting on Spacex to make it first. Not with real money, mind you. Just with the credibility that goes with a single message post that less than a dozen people are likely to read.

  • SQRLSY One||

    But USA Government Almighty just might go ahead and hobble SpaceX with 10,000,000 regulations about transmitting cooties from Earth to Mars or vice versa...

    SpaceX may need to sell USA holdings and reincorporate in (move to) China or India, to escape our voracious, insatiable regulators!

  • MJBinAL||

    Oh, we can only hope that Elon will move his "businesses" (con games that make Bernie Maddok look like small time) to China. Then we can hope that the Chinese begin to fund him with THEIR tax money. This crippling an economic competitor and freeing up resources in the US for actual productive purposes.

  • Released||

    No, it will be done, and can only be done, by Americans in the US.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The program calls for protecting Mars and Earth from "contaminating" each other, but there is not one shred of evidence to support the notion...

    Apparently someone didn't see the Jake Gyllenhaal movie Life. Actually, come to think of it, a lot of people didn't see it. Good for them. It was ludicrous.

  • Cyto||

    It was all brain and all muscle! Duh! It made perfect sense that it would be smarter than a hundred Nobel laureates and stronger than a fully grown polar bear. Even though it was only a single cell a few hours earlier. It grows fast. Duh! That's what mars stuff does. And don't talk to me about how it went inside that dude and so it had a huge food source and it should never have left before it finished eating him from the inside out. The thing was smart. Like super-smart. So it knew they'd figure out how to get it if it stayed there. Duh! It's obvious.

    Pbbbt. Ludicrous my ass...... Freakin' plebes. Genius is what you meant. Genius.

  • CE||

    I was going to see it in the theater, but I had a business trip that week.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Protecting Woolly Mammoths from Extinction!

    Speaking of Government Almighty doing things that reflect total impracticality and scientific illiteracy… While the federal Government Almighty is protecting us from interplanetary cooties, the New York State Government Almighty is one-upping them! They are protecting wooly mammoths from extinction! I kid you not!

    Please see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/nyregion/ . . . about-8-million-of-elephant-ivory-destroyed-in-
    . . . central-park.html among other links. New York State will destroy your art created from mammoth ivory as well as from elephant ivory! I have read that telling mammoth ivory from elephant ivory is a trivial task!

  • Robert||

    We need Planetary Protection—after all, they already took out Pluto! Mickey & Goofy next up!!

  • SQRLSY One||

    Speaking of Mickey and Goofy...

    Why did Mickey Mouse divorce Minnie Mouse?

    Because she was fuckin' Goofy!

  • Cynical Asshole||

    If I didn't know any better I'd suspect that NASA's mission has nothing to do with space exploration and everything to do with perpetuating its bureaucracy. /sarc

  • MJBinAL||

    ^THIS^

  • phandaal||

    The minute we figure out how to monetize what's on the moon it'll be the end for these protections. With a good enough reason to go there will be no stopping people. They can't police single countries effectively... what makes them think they can police entire planets?

    The only thing stopping anyone now is how hard it is to get out of the gravity well and the fact that space is incredibly dangerous to human life.

  • CE||

    If NASA made cars, they would top out at 30 miles per hour, for safety, but still blow up randomly now and then.

    If there had been a "hemisphere protection officer" in the 15th century, well, I guess maybe that would have been a very good idea from the perspective of the residents of the Western Hemisphere at that time....

  • Released||

    Like the SLS, a NASA car would cost as much as its weight in gold! 1,000 tons. $40Bn.
    And that's on the launch pad, not in weightlessness.

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, that is not so much money after all.
    First day on the job, he determines that the only way to prevent contamination is to not go.
    $512.33 spent on his salary for the one day, a gazillion dollars saved on the cancelled program.
    Money well spent.

  • Bob Armstrong||

    A pleasure to read such a scientifically competent article .

  • renewableguy||

    The program calls for protecting Mars and Earth from "contaminating" each other, but there is not one shred of evidence to support the notion that life of any kind, let alone pathogens of macrofauna or macroflora, or free-living microbes with superior adaptation to the terrestrial environment than native species, exists on the Martian surface.

    This is called hating regulations to the point of stupidity. Ignorance is no excuse if we do contaminate.

  • SQRLSY One||

    ...says the guy who obviously did NOT read the article! With your kind of ultra-nannying safety paranoia, our cars and trucks would be limited to driving 2 or 3 miles per hour! In fair-weather daylight only, at that!

    "Be safe"!!!!

  • Released||

    So you use your ignorance as your argument? Because you don't know, no one should do. I disagree. Since we don't know, we need to find out! I bet my life that there's no alien on Mars capable or willing to destroy us. All life always had this my sentiment when it conqured unknown realms, like land or atmosphere or whatever completely unknown and risky step in the evolution during billions of years.

    Being afraid of a dead rock in space, then you grab a door knob with lethal bacteria and virus specifically evolved to kill you, that's pretty pathetic.

  • Robert Walker||

    Yes exactly. We haven't searched for life on Mars since Viking. We now know of several possible habitats on Mars for life, but nobody is looking there yet. There could even be life where Curiosity is, and we would have no way of knowing if it is as sparse as it is in Antarctic dry valleys, say, which is roughly similar in many ways.

    If you haven't looked yet, then absence of evidence proves nothing. Viking's organic detection instrument was as much confused by the perchlorates as the labelled release - and Viking was searching in what we now know to be one of the less likely places to find life on Mars.

    When Zubrin first put forward his arguments that we don't need to protect Earth from Mars life, in his article for the Planetary Magazine as "Contamination from Mars: No Threat" then he got very strongly worded responses in "No Threat? No Way"

    Margaret Race, from the SETI institute: ""He's confident in our impressive technological prowess; he's raring to go and doesn't want anything to slow down or stop our exploration of Mars - especially not burdensome regulations based on very small risks and scientific uncertainty. Yet when he suggests that there's no need for back contamination controls on Mars sample return missions, he's advocating an irresponsible way to cut corners. If he were an architect, would he suggest designing buildings without smoke detectors or fire extinguishers?"

  • Robert Walker||

    His meteorite argument doesn't work. Yes we get half a ton of Mars meteorites hitting Earth every year, that's true. And it is true that life can survive deep below the surface even for millions of years. But the meteorites we have so far all had pre-atmospheric sizes of 23- 25 cm. According to impact modeling, typical meteorites will be on average 30 cm in diameter. The largest meteorites likely to get to Earth are 2 meters in diameter, at least for the sizes of impacts that sent material here for the last twenty million years. So there is no chance at all of a meteorite large enough to protect life from cosmic radiation for as long as 600,000 years hitting Earth now.

    As well as that, how does life getting into it at the Mars end? The rock surface is ablated in the Earth's atmosphere. The rock that leaves Mars, from the modelling comes from deep below the surface, several meters down. The surface layers can't get into space with that size of meteorite, and anyway are fragile layers of salt, sand, even ice.

    The meteorites we have from Mars show clear evidence that when on Mars they were deep below the surface so back up the modeling.

    I'd need to write an article five to ten times the length of this one to explain all the things wrong with what he has said in those few words.

    You might be interested in my OK to Touch? book. I don't know if I can post links here, but try a google search for "OK to Touch? Mars? Europa? Enceladus? Or a Tale of Missteps?"

  • DrZ||

    Earth to space. Earth to space. We need immediate help.

    We are being engulfed by bureaucratic slim. We thought it was the blob, but our efforts to freeze it failed. It is growing and covering everything.

    Please send help immediately before it is .....crackle.

  • Frank Thorn||

    NASA used to be about science. Now it's just a self serving hobby for a select few.

  • Longtobefree||

    Further prrof that the federal budget can, in fact, be balanced. Just a little trimming here and there - - - -

  • jerryg1018||

    It's called Empire Building. It starts with one person hired for a position. That person soon needs an assistant. Then more assistants are hired. Next office support staff are needed. Now the original hiree needs a deputy whi soon needs an assistant. Now a one man office has grown to require an entire floor of office space. Now all the people need to justify their jobs so they begin issuing regulations. The EPA and Army Corp of Engineers are prime examples. The EPA and ACoE have decided they have authority over "all bodies of water" in the US, not just the navigable waters spelled out in the Environmental Protection Act. Have a small puddle in your driveway after a rain storm? Don't you dare fill it in, that puddle is governed by the EPA.
    Every other federal agency is sticking it's nose in well beyond it's mandate from Congress. It's called bureaucratic overreach.

  • jerryg1018||

    It's called Empire Building. It starts with one person hired for a position. That person soon needs an assistant. Then more assistants are hired. Next office support staff are needed. Now the original hiree needs a deputy whi soon needs an assistant. Now a one man office has grown to require an entire floor of office space. Now all the people need to justify their jobs so they begin issuing regulations. The EPA and Army Corp of Engineers are prime examples. The EPA and ACoE have decided they have authority over "all bodies of water" in the US, not just the navigable waters spelled out in the Environmental Protection Act. Have a small puddle in your driveway after a rain storm? Don't you dare fill it in, that puddle is governed by the EPA.
    Every other federal agency is sticking it's nose in well beyond it's mandate from Congress. It's called bureaucratic overreach.

  • Space Mission Architects||

    Dr. Zubrin is spot-on. And we are NEVER gong to discover life on another planet if we are not allowed to touch it! The nay-sayers (and there are many) appear to have some hidden agenda. Could it be that the discovery of life outside of Earth could upset their current belief systems? Food for thought...

  • Released||

    No conspiracy such as a hidden agenda needed. The don't-goers rely on their familiar set of mental illnesses of doomsday illusions and hypochondria. All life on Earth being exterminated by space aliens is only one of the weapons in their arsenal to prevent life from ever spreading from Earth.

    They start out with non-spaceflight as their aim and conclusion, then they make up stuff to try to fool the stupidest part of the audience. They also (same people!) make up fantasies about how weightlessness and space radiation will kill everyone, and that everyone in the crew of a spaceship will go mad from "not seeing earth" and kill each other for that reason (no kidding, there are people out there claiming this full time!) And their conclusion is that we shouldn't even try to find out by trying.

    You can argue against anything with that rhetorical pattern! Your mother should never have gotten pregnant, because who can foresee what that leads to!?

    No one knows anything about alien life. That is true. I wouldn't call it Risk since it isn't in any way quantifiable, but Danger because exploration of the unknown is dangerous for sure. We all die. Some for a purpose, a few for something meaningful. The issue is whether we should try to find out about it, or stay and die ignorant at home.

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