Stern to Chair NASA Planetary Protection Review Board

Stern to Chair NASA Planetary Protection Review Board

Alan Stern will chair NASA’s new review board to take a fresh look at existing planetary protection guidelines and determine if changes should be made in light of advances in planetary science over the past several decades.  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) called for such a review last year.  Stern’s board will make recommendations that flow through several other bodies on their way to the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which sets those guidelines for the international space community.

Alan Stern.  Credit: Southwest Research Institute.

Planetary protection refers to protecting Earth and other solar system bodies from forward and back contamination as spacecraft are sent to or return from places that might harbor life.

Since the beginning of the space program, the United States has led the development of non-binding international planetary protection guidelines through COSPAR, part of the International Council on Science (ICSU).  The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the U.S. member of COSPAR.

Much has been learned about solar system bodies since the guidelines were last updated and, importantly, the nature of planetary exploration is changing as more countries and private sector entities get in on the action.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine created a new Regulatory and Policy Committee (RPC) as part of NAC last year that brings a private sector perspective to the Council.  One of its first recommendations was to relook at the guidelines and the burdens they impose on spacecraft design.

In December, NAC adopted a RPC recommendation that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) form a task force to reassess the guidelines.  SMD Associate Administrator (AA) Thomas Zurbuchen agreed.  The result is this new Planetary Protection Review Board with Stern as its chair.

Based at the Southwest Research Institute, Stern is Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission that flew past Pluto in 2015 and Ultima Thule at the very beginning of this year.  He is a former SMD AA and also has extensive experience as a consultant to private sector entities active in space exploration including entrepreneurial companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Moon Express.  In a statement, he said he was looking forward to “helping ensure that we have a set of guidelines that help enable a new era of civil, commercial, and public-private partnership exploration, while safeguarding both life on Earth and environments across the solar system.”

Zurbuchen explained last year that whatever the Review Board concludes will be forwarded to NAC and then go to the NASA Administrator.  From there it will go to SSB and its sister Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) for an independent look.  Then it will be taken to COSPAR. Len Fisk, another former AA for science at NASA and a former SSB chair, is currently President of COSPAR, which should facilitate that step.

Last year, the SSB released a study requested by NASA assessing the process by which planetary protection guidelines are developed. Chaired by Joseph Alexander, the report argues that planetary protection policies and requirements should apply equally to government and private sector missions and domestic and international policy-making processes therefore need to take private sector views into account.  That is basically the viewpoint of NAC’s RPC as well.

Alexander, a former NASA official and former SSB Director, told today that he is pleased the review is moving forward because “there is some urgency in getting NASA to be prepared for upcoming needs.”  NASA’s FY2020 budget request includes $109 million for a Mars Sample Return mission that could be launched as early as 2026.  Alexander concurs that all the steps outlined by Zurbuchen are needed to ensure agency buy-in plus an “independent, outside, expert assessment and support.”  He is optimistic the process can be completed in a time frame closer to “a year” rather than “years” if the Review Board members and reviewers “are all prepared to do their part.”

He also applauded Stern’s appointment as chair.  Stern not only has strong science credentials, but “more familiarity with private sector interests” than many space scientists and it is important to include that perspective.

The other members of the Review Board have not been named.  NASA said they will have “experience in management, engineering, science, industry and legal matters relevant to planetary protection.”  The board is expected to begin work in June, spend three months formulating recommendations, and then present an interim report to Zurbuchen.

NAC’s RPC will meet next weekSSB and ASEB are also meeting next week.  Planetary protection is not specified on any of the agendas, but the topic may well arise.

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