Rethinking Space Exploration During a Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic is turning society upside down. Should the grandparents (the most vulnerable population) watch the kids with the daycare centers closed? How can migrant workers come to harvest our food if the borders are sealed? Should the National Guard be mobilized to help other states when their own state might be next?

Of all the impacts, one that recently got my attention (and granted, it isn’t the most serious problem today) is should we be bringing material back from other planets during future space explorations?

For example, in July NASA is planning to launch a new rover to Mars to look for microbial life and gather up some rock and soil samples, which will eventually be brought to Earth.

NASA does take this issue very seriously, even having a division, the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) (informally known as the Planetary Protection Office) devoted to protecting us. And as the photo shows, they have been very careful to date, even taking extreme precautions during the moon missions when the risk was very low to begin with.

President Nixon talking to the Apollo 11 crew members (left to right: Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin Jr.) while the astronauts were in quarantine after returning to Earth from their trip to the moon.
 NASA

Personally, I would love to know about possible life on Mars, or about all the other celestial bodies around us for that matter. But I’ve also studied what happens to native populations when explorers bring new pathogens to a different region. Maybe this current reminder of how much damage our own Earth-bound bugs can do should cause us to consider space exploration even more carefully?

Explore, but at a safe distance.

For more information, see “Coronavirus Could Preview What Will Happen When Alien Life Reaches Earth” by Jeffrey Kluger (https://time.com/5793520/coronavirus-alien-life/?). The photo came from that site.

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