Ebola Outbreak Could Be Used As Learning Tool For NASA, How To Handle Space Samples

With NASA making plans to send humans to Mars, hauling back Martian samples means potentially dealing with biological “hot property,” as well as public concern about NASA accidentally bringing back organisms from Mars that could potentially contaminate Earth. Some fear that certain types of organisms could even eat away at Earth’s biosphere.

However, Leonard David, former director of research for the National Commission on Space and co-author of Buzz Aldrin’s 2013 book Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration, notes that NASA scientists should consider studying the recent Ebola outbreak as a precautionary measure.

David asked some key astrobiologists if today’s Ebola outbreak might have any lessons for future sample-return plans from Mars and reported his findings on Space.com. There were mixed feelings about a connection between the Ebola outbreak and the handling of space samples. However, many felt that at least public response to astronauts bringing in space samples with potential bacteria could cause a similar public outcry.

John Rummel, a professor of biology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, noted that the Ebola outbreak and return of samples from Mars are two entirely different beasts, but noted that if the public was not properly informed, there is a strong possibility that the two could be linked.

“While the Ebola situation bears no resemblance to a sample-return mission to Mars, there is a concern that the public could link the two if not properly informed.”

Rummel notes that Mars samples would be contained from the point of securing them on the planetary body until they were determined to pose no biological threat to Earth. Catharine Conley, Planetary Protection Officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C., seconds Rummel’s analysis that there would not be a biological threat as specimens would be thoroughly contained. However, she did note that much can be learned about public perception and the need for information.

“It is true that the greater public awareness of issues related to hazardous materials not being contained properly, and particularly the unfortunate examples of false negatives — like the person not appearing to be sick when he got off the plane in Dallas — do make it easier to communicate similar concerns in the area of planetary protection.”

Penelope Boston, an astrobiologist, says that much can be learned about the need for proper training when dealing with any organic chemical. Boston says that for space exploration missions, a buddy system would be in place to ensure safety protocol by astronauts were followed.

“I would always have a safety officer bird-dogging my every movement — the buddy system — that is employed in so many hazardous military and civilian contexts. That’s because no person can both keep their mind on the intensive scientific work they are doing and be absolutely assured of their own adherence to very fussy safety procedures.”

NASA did note that when creating its draft Mars sample handling and testing protocols, it did so in coordination with experts from CDC and other regulatory agencies. Margaret Race, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, notes that NASA plans to take a super conservative approach to any samples retrieved and returned to Earth from Mars.

“Protocols will be updated well in advance of any sample return mission from Mars. There’s already a comprehensive process of review and integration of planetary protection requirements that has been endorsed for implementation well in advance of any sample return mission.”