Microbiologists’ Perceptions of Planetary Protection
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As society enters the 21st century, NASA and its international partners are planning to conduct numerous new and exciting missions within the solar system. Many of these missions are motivated by scientific questions in Astrobiology that focus on the origin and evolution of life in the universe. These explorations will involve the search for evidence of life beyond Earth and the return of geological and atmospheric samples to Earth for analysis. In a society that places everincreasing importance on the role of public involvement in science and technology policy, questions about the possible risks of biological contamination from sample return missions will be examined and debated in the media. These perceptions will, over time, form an important input to the development of risk management policies and strategies concerning sample return missions. Studies on risk perception that we conduct today form a baseline of information against which we can observe changes in public risk attitudes. A significant barrier to the development of effective risk management results, in part, from the difficulties lay people have understanding the complexities of science and technical risk assessment. These difficulties are potentially magnified in the case of interplanetary biological protection, where scientific understanding of extraterrestrial organisms is particularly low (or nonexistent), the potential consequences of exposure to (or contamination by) such organisms (if they exist) is virtually unknown, and the mechanisms for managing the risks of such exposure are either novel or complex. Previous research has shown that many of the problems faced by risk-management organizations are the result of differing perceptions of risk (and risk management) between the general public and scientific experts. Indeed, a consistent finding in risk perception research is the heavy reliance that lay people place upon scientific disagreements as indicative of the degree to which they should be concerned about a risk issue. In essence, if experts don’t know enough to agree, then there must be a problem worthy of attention. As plans for sample return missions progress and requirements for planetary protection are analyzed and debated, members of various scientific disciplines, including microbiologists, will be called upon for judgments concerning the potential hazardousness of these endeavors, as they were during the Apollo Program when lunar samples were returned to Earth. Some of these judgments will be made in the context of technical and scientific meetings or the environmental impact statement process; others will be made in response to media probes of experts’ views about the risks to society of space research activities. Microbiology is a scientific discipline that offers a unique perspective on planetary protection because extraterrestrial life in our solar system, should it exist, is most likely microbial in nature, and methods of quarantining, handling, analysis, and curation of samples returned from Mars (or other celestial bodies) will be based on those of microbiological science. Likewise, microbiology will continue to inform space planners about approaches for planetary protection. The development of an effective planetary protection policy will require microbiologist input to achieve the goals of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, by which exploration must be done in a way that avoids harmful cross-contamination between planets and other bodies during exploration. This study focuses on microbiologists’ perceptions, views, attitudes, and beliefs concerning planetary exploration and planetary protection, including the risks associated with sample return and the adequacy of risk management approaches which seek to safeguard the environment, health, and safety of Earth.