Eric Berger at Ars Technica recently had a conversation with Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and a leading advocate of Mars exploration and settlement. Zubrin is afraid that demands by some in the scientific community for “Planetary Protection” will foreclose humans ever going to Mars. That concern has also been raised by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who has Mars settlement aspirations of his own.

What is planetary protection?

Planetary protection is a concept that prevents Mars life from contaminating Earth and Earth life from contaminating Mars.

The former possibility concerns fears of an “Andromeda Strain” style infestation from Mars that starts to kill people on Earth. The possibility was the basis of a lurid science fiction-horror movie called “Life” that depicts a Martian life form getting loose on board the International Space Station after a sample return mission. Scientists are keen to prevent Earth microbes from reaching Mars so as not to contaminate any life forms that may exist on the Red Planet.

The objections to the idea

Zubrin and others suggest that no possible way exists to sterilize human astronauts sufficiently to make sure that the myriad of microbes that the human body carry find themselves in the Martian environment.

He suggests that the combination of extreme cold and radiation has likely killed any life that might be on Mars in any case, especially on the surface. Also, the two planets probably have exchanged microbes, in any event, riding on meteors kicked up from the surface of one planet and carried to the other over billions of years.

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Congress will have to sort things out

Congress is going to have to sort things out as legislation proceeds to develop a mission approval process for private companies which propose to land probes on other worlds such as Mars. SpaceX is already planning to land as many as two of its Red Dragons on Mars with a launch as soon as 2020.

In the long term, NASA is still embarked on the Journey to Mars with humans landing on the Red Planet in the 2030s.

Why are we going to Mars?

The ultimate question surrounding the concept of planetary protection is, why are we going to Mars? Is the purpose of Martian exploration to hunt for extraterrestrial life, making the Red Planet into a science game preserve? Or will Mars be a venue for a new branch of human civilization, in effect bringing life to the Red Planet as it is gradually terraformed to look as it once did billions of years ago, with a thick atmosphere, oceans and rivers, and complex life forms on a newly restored green planet?