To Prevent a Martian Plague, NASA Needs to Build a Very Special Lab
The potential for tardiness presented “significant programmatic risk” to the Mars Sample Return, the team determined. After all, the return is likely to be more complicated, in regards to paperwork, than that of purely terrestrial projects.
NASA wants its project to comply with international planetary-protection policies as well as its own complementary ones. The Sample Receiving Facility would also have to be approved through the National Environmental Policy Act process, which would require producing an environmental-impact statement. The spacecraft and its at-home facility may, additionally, have to deal with National Security Presidential Directive 25, which rules over scientific and technological experiments that could have big environmental effects. This is not to neglect official interest from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and potentially other state and local governments.
But engaging with the public, not just government agencies, was also key to a project’s success, the team found. Being transparent with the public, Dr. Rummel said, is key not just to gaining public support but to keep the effort accountable and safe. “Total openness is the only thing that’s going to make this work, which means that you have to do the right thing,” he said.
“If you thought you had any of this that you had to keep secret, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” he added.
The facility’s builders will have to consider public interest, not just research, when they communicate. When Scott Hanton, editorial director of the publication Lab Manager, thinks about the perception and communication challenges NASA will face with the Sample Receiving Facility, two more acronyms come to mind: NIMBY and WIIFM. Not In My Backyard and What’s in It For Me, which have to be balanced.
The answer to the latter, Dr. Hanton thinks, has to come from a resident’s personal viewpoint. “Not just from the scientist’s perspective of learning something new,” he said. “But why should the neighborhood, the region, the state, the country, embark on this investment and this risk?”