NASA official battles the bugs of space travel

"We have been planning a Mars sample return mission since the 1970s," says Catharine "Cassie" Conley. (Paul Alers/nasa)
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By Garance Franke-Ruta
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds," Earth's unwitting defense against the Martian hordes comes in the form of pathogenic bacteria to which the invaders lack immunity.

In reality, earthlings have created an international network whose next great mission is to protect potentially fragile Martian life, should there be any, from earthly contamination.

Catharine "Cassie" Conley, the planetary protection officer at NASA -- and possessor of perhaps the coolest title in the federal government -- is in charge of that mission for the United States, and as a result is part of a small global team charged with keeping space exploration as clean as possible.

Conley is quick to joke that the coolest title at NASA actually came in the old days when agency divisions had simple names -- Sun, Earth, Planets, Universe and so on -- and there was a "director, Universe."

But her job is as serious as a NASA post can be. In addition to protecting potential extraterrestrial life and monitoring for contamination on trips back to Earth, the protection office oversees protocols that assure Earth ships are sterile enough on departure that if they do find evidence of anything living, it won't be some Earth-based organism that was missed during the cleaning process and dragged across the solar system.

Also important is logging which pathogens humans might be carrying at launch, so that if someone gets sick on the way back from a theoretical future trip to Mars, NASA can quickly determine whether it's a garden-variety human bug or some new kind of Martian flu turning a homeward-bound space vehicle into a "plague ship."

So far, the worries of the planetary protection program have focused mainly on keeping probes and equipment sterile before takeoff, or "forward contamination." NASA does not have manned missions leaving Earth's orbit, and the moon has never been much of a protection worry, having been deemed inhospitable to life in the late 1960s and naturally contaminated by Earth.

The planetary protection officer also works on historic preservation questions, such as protecting the tracks of the first lunar landing from later unmanned touchdowns that could kick up dust.

The golden grail will be a Mars mission that brings back material.

"We have been planning a Mars sample-return mission since the 1970s," Conley said.

Indeed, the Planetary Protection Office at NASA was established with an eye toward such a mission, and in response to concerns raised by the first missions, the Viking orbiters and landers launched in 1975.

Since 1976 the office has overseen the alcohol wipe-downs, high-temperature dry baking and HEPA-filter treatment of equipment set for missions to Mars, such as the recent Mars Exploration Rovers, as well as selected other solar system bodies.

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