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To Prevent a Martian Plague, NASA Needs to Build a Very Special Lab

The potential for sluggishness posed a “significant programmatic risk” to the Mars Sample Return, the team determined. After all, the return will probably be more complicated, in terms of paperwork, than that of purely terrestrial projects.

NASA wants its project to be consistent with international planet protection policies as well as its own complementary policies. The sample receiving facility would also need to be approved through the National Environmental Policy Act process, which requires an environmental impact statement to be prepared. The spacecraft and its home facility could also face the National Security Presidential Directive 25, which regulates science and technology experiments that could have major environmental impacts. This is not to neglect the official interest of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services at 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 possibly other state and local governments.

But interacting with the public, not just government agencies, was also key to a project’s success, the team found. Being transparent with the public, said Dr. Rummel, is key not only to gaining public support, but also to keeping the effort accountable and safe. “Total openness is the only thing that will make this work, meaning you have to do the right thing,” he said.

“If you thought you had some of this stuff that you had to keep a secret, then you shouldn’t,” he added.

Facility builders will need to consider the public interest, not just research, in their communications. As Scott Hanton, editor-in-chief of the publication Lab Manager, ponders 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 must be in balance.

The answer to the latter, according to Dr. Hanton from the resident’s personal point of view. “Not just from the scientist’s perspective to learn something new,” he said. “But why would the neighborhood, the region, the state, the country take on this investment and this risk?”