The Planetary Exploration Survey: What Society Members Think About Planetary Protection
Value of Space Exploration and Scientific Research
The vast majority (95%) felt that space exploration is essential to the future of our society, and most (85%) said they were familiar with NASA's plans to conduct missions to the surface of Mars. Not surprisingly, the majority saw space exploration as having high benefits in terms of scientific knowledge and human fulfillment; fewer people saw high benefits in economic and military areas (see Figure 1).
In general, Society members strongly supported other large- scale scientific research, and held highly positive views about the benefits of the superconducting supercollider, mapping the human genome and continuing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Potential for Life on Other Planets
The possibility of life on other planets is one of the most intriguing aspects of space exploration. While people who responded to the survey were either skeptical or uncertain that intelligent extraterrestrial life will be discovered within a decade or so, most were confident that intelligent life does exist on other planets in the universe. Fewer agreed that some form of life exists either on other planets in our solar system or on Mars in particular.
Risks of Interplanetary Contamination
The need for planetary protection arises because of the possibility that Earth or another planet (or both) could be contaminated by the exchange of biological materials as the result of space missions. While a slight majority of respondents thought that the contamination of the martian environment by Earth life is not a significant hazard, an overwhelming majority indicated that materials brought to Earth from Mars should be considered hazardous until proven otherwise.
One article in the special issue discussed a theory that Earth and Mars were contaminated millions of years ago by meteorites from each other (see "Swapping Rocks: Exchange of Surface Material Among the Planets," by H. Jay Melosh), suggesting that there may be no need for concern about planetary protection today. However, most respondents disagreed that concern was unnecessary even if such contamination actually did occur millions of years ago.
Despite these views about the potential hazard of biological materials from Mars, there was a high level of support for future Mars missions. Very few respondents agreed that possible exposure of Earth to life from Mars was reason to cancel a Mars mission. Also, few agreed that humans on space missions should not directly contact the surface of other planets, or that robotic space missions will tell us all we need to know about other planets. Likewise, very few agreed that we should prove that no life exists on Mars before sending humans there.
While planetary protection is intended to guard against inadvertent introduction of life either onto our planet or onto another planet, an important goal of space exploration is to study life elsewhere in the universe, if it exists. To do so may involve taking samples of life and returning them to Earth. Few respondents agreed that life on Mars, if it exists in any form, should be left there undisturbed. Even fewer agreed that it is morally wrong to bring life back to Earth from another planet or to introduce life from Earth onto another planet.
Survival and Adaptability of Life
Whether life on Mars, if it exists, would survive on Earth and whether life from Earth would survive on Mars are important questions in the development of measures for planetary protection. Of all the items in the survey, those relating to the survival and adaptability of life received the highest percentages of "don't know" responses, indicating a high degree of uncertainty about these topics.
Among those respondents who did offer opinions, however, few agreed that the environment on Mars is too harsh to sustain any life from Earth. Likewise, few thought that life that evolved in the rich natural environment of Earth would not be fit enough to survive on Mars. Conversely, life on Mars was viewed as more fragile if brought to Earth.
A majority of the respondents giving opinions about the ability of martian life to survive on Earth agreed that if there is life on Mars, it most likely has adapted to that specific environment and would not survive on Earth. Less than half (34%) agreed that it has survived in such severe conditions that it would probably thrive on Earth. Overall, respondents had an asymmetric view about the survival and adaptability of life--life from Earth was seen as more likely to survive on Mars than life from Mars was to survive on Earth.
Rating the Risks
The potential contamination of Earth and Mars as part of space missions is just one among many risks faced by people on Earth. To put the risks of interplanetary contamination in a larger risk context, respondents were asked to rate the risks to their country from a number of different sources.
The highest perceived risk was ozone layer depletion, followed by global warming and food contamination (from pesticides and bacteria). Biological contamination from Mars missions was rated as the lowest risk, along with asteroids and satellite debris (see Figure 8). This does not mean, however, that these risks are of little or no concern to people. Indeed, at least half of the respondents indicated some level of risk for all of the items they rated, including those that ranked lowest.
Trust in NASA
In general, respondents had a high level of trust in NASA to successfully carry out a Mars sample return mission and to protect both Earth and Mars from interplanetary contamination. However, respondents were somewhat less trusting in NASA to respect public values and opinions about the risks and benefits of space exploration and to honestly inform the public about planetary exploration risks.
Though the percentage of respondents indicating "moderate" or "high" trust was over 50% for all items, the skepticism often voiced about the trustworthiness of government was echoed in these results as well.
To Sum Up
Overall, survey respondents were very optimistic about space exploration but cautious about the potential hazards of planetary contamination. As plans for future Mars missions move forward, public attitudes about managing the risks of space exploration will play an important role in the formulation of space policy. Your responses to this survey are a key to the development of a successful relationship between the public and organizations like NASA. Thank you for your contributions.
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