Monday, September 10, 2012

Murder on Mars?

An Open Letter to the Scientific Community:

NASA's recent "Curiosity" probe to Mars was improperly disinfected. The mission carries the potential to destroy the Martian environment, perhaps irrevocably changing & polluting that nearby world. (Any returning samples could also infect our Earth). Will the idiots be more careful in the future?

 The scientific community must penalize those responsible. Only accountability will promote proper behavior. 

Assorted strict decontamination & quarantine procedures for spacecraft have been agreed & supposedly implemented (link). The NASA Office of Planetary Protection is responsible for adhering to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (1967), with oversight by the International Council for Science and its Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). Before the recent Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity launch, NASA engineers admittedly & (reportedly) deliberately broke disinfection & quarantine rules involving a drilling system, and bypassed required consultations with Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley.

Past pandemics generated around Earth by crude introduction of pathogens should have been ample warning of danger. European contact with the "New World" at that time resulted in extinction of an unknown number of species, and perhaps a 95% mortality rate amongst indigenous peoples due to newly-introduced disease & illnesses.

Such overreaching efforts by engineers must be stopped. NASA should be fined US$1 billion for their transgression, with penalty monies transferred to provide better funding for planetary protection, cautionary education, and independent oversight. I believe a short prison sentence and individual fines for the involved engineers & supervisors will also help avoid future cross-contamination (NASA supervisor David Lavery has defended this breach of procedure). Any next time easily could cause death to us all.

NASA Office of Planetary Protection
COSPAR Scientific Assembly website
COSPAR Panel on Planetary Protection
The Guardians project (educating schoolkids)
Leonard David article about the incident