On Wednesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), hosted a day-long roundtable event with private industry to discuss guidance, protocols, and technologies for planetary protection. Planetary protection refers to the policy and practice of protecting future scientific investigations by limiting biological contamination of other planetary bodies through exploration activities and protecting the Earth’s biosphere by avoiding harmful biological contamination by returning spacecraft. Under the Outer Space Treaty, the United States has international obligations to practice proper handling of space materials to prevent contamination for scientific and human health reasons.
Dozens of representatives of companies and industry associations attended the event to provide feedback on planetary protection issues and how the U.S. Government can best support their research and development (R&D). This event was held as part of the execution of the National Strategy for Planetary Protection, released by the White House in December 2020. Discussions from the event will help the Administration facilitate the implementation of the National Strategy and provide guidance for future missions to destinations beyond Earth.
NASA has historically been the only U.S. entity to send spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit, but a new wave of commercial space companies is changing that. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Initiative, which has 14 companies on contract, is aiming to land payloads delivered by commercial spacecraft on the Moon beginning in early 2022. Some U.S. companies are publicly discussing plans to send spacecraft and eventually humans to interplanetary destinations. The risk of cross-contamination increases with each endeavor, underscoring the need to ensure that the importance of interplanetary exploration is balanced with human health and safety. U.S. leadership in the field of planetary protection is important and we will continue to meet the objectives of the National Strategy for Planetary Protection.