Biden’s OSTP Gets Commercial Input on Planetary Protection

Biden’s OSTP Gets Commercial Input on Planetary Protection

The Biden White House is continuing to work on implementing the Trump Administration’s National Strategy for Planetary Protection. Last week, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) held a day-long roundtable with representatives of companies and industry associations to get feedback on planetary protection issues. learned of the event in advance and asked if media could attend, but the answer was no. Nor could we get a list of who was invited. But OSTP provided us with this readout of the event after the fact.

Planetary protection refers to protecting Earth from contamination by microbes from elsewhere in the solar system, and protecting the rest of the solar system from contamination by us that would compromise searches for evidence of past or present microbial life.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Science establishes planetary protection guidelines that have been evolving over the decades. The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the U.S. representative to COSPAR and has worked with NASA historically, and the broader community more recently, in helping define those international guidelines.

A National Academies committee concluded in 2018 that new approaches to setting and implementing planetary protection guidelines are needed, including taking the interests of the commercial sector into account as companies plan their own missions.

In 2019, NASA created a Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) led by Alan Stern to review NASA’s policies that agreed modernization was needed. NASA asked the Academies to review the PPIRB report and in 2020 it identified three areas of commonality: a new advisory process is needed, legal and regulatory issues need to be clarified, and the scientific and technical foundations of planetary protection policies need to be established.

The Academies created a new Committee on Planetary Protection (CoPP), led by Joseph Alexander, who chaired the 2018 and 2020 Academies reports, to continue to address these issues. CoPP recently issued a report recommending NASA relax some of its lunar planetary protection requirements and is now working on a study about Mars.

Within NASA, responsibility for planetary protection was transferred from the Science Mission Directorate to NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance in 2017. Dr. J. Nick Benardini was just appointed as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer last month, succeeding Lisa Pratt.

The issue has transcended NASA and the Academies, however. Last year during the Trump Administration, Chris Beauregard from the National Space Council and Michael Schmoyer from OSTP co-chaired an Interagency Working Group on Planetary Protection that included the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Transportation, along with the CDC, EPA, FBI, FEMA and NASA. It issued a National Strategy for Planetary Protection in December.

Michael Schmoyer, OSTP Assistant Director for Health Security Threats. Credit: his LinkedIn page.

Schmoyer is still at OSTP despite the change in administrations. He joined OSTP as Assistant Director for Heath Security Threats in April 2020 after seven years at the Department of Health and Human Services, three years as Health and Human Services Advisor to U.S. Southern Command, and prior stints at CDC regional centers in Guatemala and Kazakhstan according to his LinkedIn profile. He holds a Ph.D. in Health Behavior from the University of Florida.

Schmoyer told that the purpose of the roundtable was to meet the Strategy’s third objective: “Incorporate the perspective and needs of the private sector by soliciting feedback and developing guidelines regarding private sector activities with potential planetary protection implications.”

He said the Academies’ CoPP would have an observer at the roundtable, but otherwise the two efforts appear to be on separate tracks.

Both acknowledge the growing role of the private sector in exploring and utilizing the solar system and are seeking input on how to enable those activities while still ensuring that if we discover life elsewhere, we know it was not brought there from Earth, not to mention protecting life here from alien microbes.

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