Don't muck around in the affairs of planets that are less technologically advanced than yours. Despite how often it gets ignored, Star Trek's Prime Directive is a pretty nice attempt to take a universe brimming with life and figure out how to interact with it in an ethical way.
Unfortunately, the Prime Directive isn't terribly nuanced.
How do we relate to alien life that's as, or more, advanced than us? What if alien life is bacteria—do we still have to leave its home planet alone? How do we explore the galaxy without spreading—or picking up—any deadly diseases? The Prime Directive can't really help you here. That's why scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute are boldly going where no bureaucracies (real or fictional) have gone before—drawing up the safety protocols we Earthlings will use as we explore new worlds, and the social and ethical guidelines we'll turn to if we ever do find life on other planets.
It's all part of NASA's Office of Planetary Protection. Home of the Planetary Protection Officer, surely the most awesome job title in the sciences, the OPP has been around since 1967, before the Apollo landings on the Moon and the concept has been around since before NASA was even founded. Originally, the goal was to keep today's science from screwing up the science of tomorrow.
"Even before NASA, before Sputnik, the International Astronautical Federation was pointing out that, when we study space, we need to be careful about not spreading Earth microbes to other planets," said John Rummel, Ph.D., a professor at East Carolina University and two-term former Planetary Protection Officer. "If you do, you might end up studying your own contamination, rather than what's really out there."
The next obvious step: Worrying about the alien microbes we might bring back to Earth. Nobody wants a species-reversed version of War of the Worlds where the human race is accidentally killed off by an interstellar cold bug. Planetary Protection Officers were in charge of setting up quarantine measures for astronauts and rock samples returning from the Moon. Today, they're creating the protocols—and designing the containment facilities—that will be used when we travel to Mars and back.
These protocols are constantly evolving, Rummel said, with the changes based both on science and on societal values.
"In 1992, I canceled a document that allowed the PPO to arrest somebody who was exposed to extra-terrestrial life or material," he said. "That was originally put into place as a stopgap measure in case somebody who was working on lunar return samples got exposed but didn't want to go into the quarantine. But I read a dissertation showing how this provision wasn't in accordance with the Constitution. I found that disturbing."
The social side-effects of exobiology are every bit as important as the tech details, according to Margaret Race, an ecologist at the SETI Institute who works on planetary protection and risk communication.. With the help of a grant from NASA's Astrobiology Institute, Race put together a 2009 conference on the social and ethical implications of extraterrestrial life. She's trying to spark conversations that reach researchers in disciplines outside of the astrobiology community.
"Carl Sagan asked: If Mars has life, even if it is just microbial, does Mars belong to the martians?" she said. "This question has ethical, legal, cultural and theological implications ... and those are not what scientists study."
To remedy that, Race is working to build a loose network of space scientists, anthropologists, ethicists, legal experts, theologians and others. The goal is to make sure that ethicists have their science correct, and that scientists are aware of the ethical implications of their work. If we do this now, she hopes, mankind may be able to avoid repeating some of the mistakes we made while exploring our own planet—like careless overuse of natural resources or large scale environmental destruction.
We can start, she says, by learning from earthly examples.
"I'm working on a paper right now comparing the international treaties concerning outer space with those that cover the Antarctic," she said. "The Antarctic Treaty has established regulations that deal with environmental management and commercial activities like fisheries, tourism, oil, gas and mineral exploration. With growing commercial and private interests in space, we need to include experts from many different disciplines as we develop guidelines for human activities beyond Earth. Now is the time to think about the costs, benefits and potential impacts of our plans, particularly if we share this universe with other life forms--however simple or advanced they may be."
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.