Quarantine Protocols

At the start of the space age, scientists were already aware of the potential extraterrestrial-contamination problem—in either direction. Quarantine protocols (procedures) were established to avoid the forward contamination of alien worlds by outbound unmanned spacecraft, as well as the back contamination of the terrestrial biosphere when lunar samples were returned to Earth as part of the Apollo program. For example, the United States is a signatory to the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. This important international agreement establishes the legal requirements by which a signatory nation must take technical and operational measures to avoid forward and back contamination of planetary bodies during space exploration. The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Scientific Unions monitors a signatory nation's planetary contamination-prevention efforts.

A quarantine is basically a forced isolation to prevent the movement or spread of a contagious disease. Historically, quarantine was the period during which ships suspected of carrying persons or cargo (for example, produce or livestock) infected with contagious diseases were detained at their port of arrival. The length of the quarantine, generally 40 days, was considered sufficient to cover the incubation period of most highly infectious terrestrial diseases. If no symptoms appeared at the end of the quarantine, then the travelers were permitted to disembark, or the cargo was permitted to unload. In modern times, the term quarantine has obtained a new meaning, namely, that of holding a suspect organism or infected person in strict isolation until it is no longer capable of transmitting the disease. With the Apollo Project and the advent of the lunar quarantine, the term now has elements of both meanings. Of special interest in future space missions to the planets and their major moons is how scientists and aerospace engineers avoid the potential hazard of back contamination of Earth's environment when robot spacecraft and human explorers bring back samples of alien worlds for more detailed examination in laboratories on Earth.

Because the planet Mars and the Jovian moon Europa are potential life-bearing alien worlds, all space exploration activities involving these two celestial bodies merit very special attention to the problem of extraterrestrial contamination. Specifically, scientists and aerospace engineers must control the terrestrial microbial contamination associated with any robot spacecraft intended to be in the vicinity, to fly by, to orbit, or to land on these interesting worlds. For future robot missions to Mars or Europa that will return materials from either of these worlds back to Earth for additional study, scientists and engineers must pay very close attention to the potential problem of back contamination of Earth. At present, NASA's policy for handling extraterrestrial samples returned to Earth is directed primarily toward containing any potentially hazardous material from Mars. Concerns expressed within the scientific community have included a difficult-to-control pathogen that is capable of infecting human hosts directly (generally considered to be highly unlikely) or the discovery of a life-form that is capable of upsetting the current natural balance of Earth's ecosystem.

It is also of paramount importance that responsible officials within the U.S. government, including NASA, carefully address—well in advance of any sample return mission—the potential public perception that might attribute some future epidemic, personal illness, or unusual event to a space-introduced contaminant from Mars. The public has already been exposed to and possibly preconditioned by a number of graphic sciencefiction stories and motion pictures that center around the issue of a deadly disease (or creature) of extraterrestrial origin that spreads rapidly here on Earth, relentlessly killing large numbers of people. The classic "alien bug gone wild on Earth" story is the 1971 film, The Andromeda Strain, based on the excellent 1969 science-fiction novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. Other movies, such as The Blob and the set of Alien films, have vivid fictional presentations that reinforce the potential horrors of back contamination.

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