ASI W9900394r1.0

Moon Miners' Manifesto

#110 November 1997

Section the Artemis Data Book

Lunar Quarantine Facility for Mars Sample Returns

by Robert Bialecki and Peter Kokh

[EDITOR: This was written before the recently published findings of discovery of primitive life forms in many "extreme" locations on Earth - but we personally will still be surprised if there is a positive finding of non-extinct life on Mars. 6/10-'99 - PK.]

Perhaps it's an occupational hazard. Not too long ago, I happened to watch Ted Koppel's Nightline (I'm usually asleep in bed by that time, 11:30 pm in Milwaukee). And lo and behold he was indulging himself in tabloid journalism. Or more accurately, he was not knowledgeable enough to spot the flim flam nonsense of the self proclaimed expert who was shouting: "doom, doom! NASA is planning to bring Martian germs back to Earth where they will destroy us!" Of course, Koppel gave the obligatory equal time to a NASA spokesman who tried to be reassuring.

The salient points are:

Martian organisms may indeed have arisen and evolved on their own up to some primitive point. (They had less than a billion years of prime time - it took three billion years for prospering Earth life to get beyond the one-celled stage.) But, even though primitive terrestrial organisms have been revived after a state of drought-induced stasis lasting hundreds of years, it seems quite a leap of faith to think Martian organisms might similarly have "hibernated" "successfully" for billions of years. All during that time, Mars experienced not only forbidding cold and severe desiccation, but relentless exposure to the full fury of the Sun's ultraviolet rays. UV works swiftly to "destructure" [the etymological root of "destroy"] organic compounds and tissues. The thin Martian atmosphere, as much of an asset as it is for the mining of volatiles and for aero-braking lift by descending vehicles - (it) offers no protection against ultraviolet radiation (put the stress on radiation!)
To be sure, optimists have offered scenarios for survival, such as burrowing into rocks. This is a defense of inexorable attrition at best, as rock surfaces are constantly being eroded in the dust-laden abrasive winds of the thin Martian air.
Predators co-evolve with prey. You can't expect Martian organisms, should they have survived for three eons (Sagan-years) against all odds, however adept they are/were at getting their dinner without permission in their native ecosystems, to find Terran organisms with no-shared ancestry, perhaps not even common proteins or amino acids, equally tasty, let alone more so.

The argued evidence we have for Martian life is not direct. We have no fossils, no DNA, just "tracks" and "footprints". We have no evidence that any ancient Martian organisms have survived - even in death! And we have no non-temperament-induced reasons to believe we shall ever find real organic "remains", even long dead ones.

Of course, it would be great if we could find such relics. We could deduce from them points of difference and similarity with Earth life, even settle the question of shared, derived, or independent origin (Mother/Daughter, Sister/Sister, Stranger/Stranger) of the two life strains.

Even if, happy day, we did find such remains, even if we found them in profusion, it is unlikely that we will ever find anything intact enough to be revived or even be recopied and rebuilt, Andromeda Strain fashion.

So my reaction (PK) was to rail against Ted Koppel and his journalistic shortcomings and to dismiss the whole "Chicken Little" brouhaha. But fellow chapter member Bob Bialecki had quite a different reaction to the Koppel episode, which he also had seen. "If there is this fear in the people out there, why tilt at windmills trying to defuse it in an expert vs. expert battle we are likely to lose? Why not accept that fear as a given, and address it in a way that serves our own purposes?"

Koppel's expert had correctly pointed out one could-have-been-fatal flaw in the quarantine procedures used for the returning Apollo astronauts and their precious moon rock and dust samples. For in fact, ocean water was allowed to freely wash over the astronauts' "dust contaminated suits" and then to spill back into the ocean. "Why not," Bob said, "call for all Mars Sample Returns to be brought back, not to Earth, where absolute quarantine is impossible, but to the Moon where fail-safe quarantine measures are relatively simple to arrange, guaranteed by the Moon's sterilizing radiation-washed vacuum?"

It is easy to retort that this involves unnecessary expense. After all, all but the most romantic are certain to the umpteenth power that nothing now lives on Mars. [*See note under byline, above.] Certainly, such a facility would be an expensive adjunct to an international lunar science outpost. Is public panic deep enough to loose the purse strings that much? Many an unwise compromise has been justified in the past in the name of responsible frugality. We could expect elected government officials to side with those scientists who do not see the need for such measures. A Mars Sample Return Quarantine Facility would almost certainly be an outgrowth of a lunar outpost, not it's primary reason for being. So if the powers that be aren't already sold on a Moonbase on its own merits, that poses a problem.

Now what if a much less expensive more modest outpost was built from, and delivered to the Moon by, existing hardware, financed by investors expecting profits - á la Artemis Moonbase, for example? Then an economical neighboring Mars Sample Return Facility could be set up and run by the Artemis people, for a profit, of course, the fee it charged whatever Mars exploring space agencies brought the return samples to the site.

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