Protecting Earth and space from people

By Maggie Koerth-Baker


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."

Image courtesy Flickr user x-ray_delta_one, via CC

Published 9:44 am Sat, Mar 20, 2010

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About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

39 Responses to “Protecting Earth and space from people”

  1. Daemon says:

    We can’t even deal with chimps gorillas, who we can already talk to via sign language. We’re going to make a monstrous hash of first contact, no matter what.

  2. Agies says:

    Whatever you do, don’t uplift the Krogans before they’re ready. No matter the galactic threat, no good will come of it.

  3. Terry says:

    The Prime Directive does not, of course, apply to alien babes. Jim Kirk proved this repeatedly.

  4. Hawkman says:

    At some point in the future, in a galaxy far, far away some human will say; meh, rules are meant to be broken.

  5. bjacques says:

    Note to self: introducing the Iotians to gangsta rap in the hopes of accelerating their cultural develipment is FAIL.

    • webmonkees says:

      You have to wonder if anyone in Starfleet stopped by to get their ‘piece of the action’ as set in the agreement. 30% of a planet’s GDP is nothing to sneeze at, Prime Directive or no.

      • peterbruells says:

        40%, I think. And it was supposed to get into a trust. :-)

        Though I supposed that Blackwater got the contract and took about 90% of it in “service charges”,

        • Anonymous says:

          Don’t worry, the contracting officer the Federation Council assigned to write up the security services contract with Blackwater set a requirement that all Blackwater employees were required to wear a red shirt while on duty.

  6. Gilbert Wham says:

    By what metric does one ascertain whether a culture (particularly a completely alien one) is sufficiently ‘advanced’ for you to enter into a dialogue with them?

    It may be that you find that space-faring cultures are, exclusively, enormous assholes; whereas the guys on the next planet could be happily covered by clouds, never have thought of what might be beyond them, but far more psychologically stable as far as talking to people from another planet without reaching for the ‘Nuke ‘em! Now!’ button goes.

    Of course, being a space-faring species, that would put us firmly in the ‘enormous assholes’ camp, but hey.

  7. Mike Franklin says:

    Imagine that! Humanity writing its own rules about right and wrong while expanding its imminent domain into space! (Can you see this fox writing the menu at the door to the henhouse?)

    Okay, forgive the sarcasm and overt cynicism… but there is a history that says that while we may say one thing, we will inevitably do something else.

    But, in what may be an ironic bit of justice… our next encounter with a native species may see them kicking us in our little big horn, all the way back to Earth.

  8. tomrigid says:

    If we can evolve a set of principles which let us keep our own planet healthy, we’ll already have the template for handling the rest of the galaxy.

    Otherwise…just take off and nuke us from space. It’s the only way to be sure.

  9. spellgage says:

    Theology isn’t about “treating myths as true;” it’s the study of the interaction between humanity and supernatural deity, whether it be the Abrahamic God (Yahweh) or some other god(s). Even if one assumes the supernatural to NOT exist, theologians are useful for dealing with alien cultures that assume the supernatural DOES exist. Approaching a fundamentalist alien society with atheistic smugness (“We come from Earth, and we bring you… ETHICS!”) will, at the very least, hamper the development of mutual understanding and goodwill.

  10. Anonymous says:

    the reapers will return

  11. Anonymous says:

    It was always my understanding from Star Trek that the Prime Directive applied to civilizations on a planet, not the planetary body itself per se, and that such a civilization had to be “pre-warp”, that is, incapable of traveling beyond their own solar system.

    There were episodes that dealt with hive-mind bacterial life forms; sentient energy beings; and warp-capable societies that had gained the technology via unnatural means (that is, they did not develop it, someone else gave, stole or had it stolen from them). In all of these instances the societies were recognized for their autonomy, but only those capable of extra-planetary travel in some form were allowed regular Federation contact. It was something of a case-by-case situation, except where gangsters or Nazis were involved.

  12. SpaceGhost says:

    Have you seen how vast space is? We can barely hop to the moon and we’re still trying to figure out how to get to mars safely which is the next planet over. Us figuring out how were going to interact with alien civilizations would be like cavemen trying to figure out how to handle internet protocols, yeah they could figure something out maybe but by the time the technology arrives the humans holding that technology aren’t going to look back to their ancestors for guidance, they’ll figure out their own rules themselves. Fun to think about but productive I doubt it.

    (As for martian microbes being there, of course it’s not impossible but I’d bet a million dollars there aren’t any. I’m sure most scientists know in their gut that’s how it really is, but they’re pushing that microbe angle to justify looking at other worlds and to keep the public interested in what is basically a geological expedition of other planets. Spending a billion dollars to look at faraway rocks doesn’t sit well with some people or sound good in the press.)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Must also throw in mention here of Ursula LeGuin; the Hainish books (Left Hand of Darkness in particular) deals with some of these issues fairly well, including extreme variation as a more reasonable possibility than easily graded levels of advancement. The Gethenians have no war, no set gender, but no space travel and limited scientific knowledge. Who is the “more advanced” culture?

  14. phisrow says:

    What could a Theologian possibly have to add to the discussion? The most enlightened ones available are, at present, those who are willing to sit down and shut up while the scientists are talking, and that’s about terrestrial biology.

    • Anonymous says:

      Science alone cannot teach us what is right and wrong. Theologians have been studying ethics for millennia.

      • Anonymous says:


        Those theologians who have been studying ethics for millenia still haven’t noticed that religion allows morally bad behavior to flourish. They should not be allowed anywhere near ethical questions of a scientific nature.

        Furthermore, science has everything to do with ethics, and can inform us more successfully about it:

        Anon replied to comment from phisrow • #11 • 17:21 on Sat, Mar.20 • Reply Science alone cannot teach us what is right and wrong. Theologians have been studying ethics for millennia.

      • coaxial says:

        Actually ethicists studies ethics. Theologians study theology. While it is true that *some* theologians also study ethics, they do so in a mythology centered world. It is not the myths that change, but rather what is acceptable to society that changes. They simply change the interpretation of the myth to match whatever they want to say. That is not an argument. Ethicists do so with resorting to an appeal to authority ad absurdum.

        A theologian is as useful as an expert on Tolkien’s Legendarium,

        And as an aside, I feel I should point out that studying “theology” is *much* different from studying “religion.” Theology is about treating myths as true. Religion is just another liberal art, indistinguishable to classics, literature, history, or sociology (depending on what aspect you study).

  15. Anonymous says:

    You’ll notice that in Star Trek and other movies the exploration of space is always achieved by means of a military venture. That is the only paradigm ever presented in the media, to the point where it looks normal because we have been acclimatized to accept it.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Ridiculous and outdated to think mankind is ever going to explore the universe in a tiny metal can. Do they have any concept how long it’ll take to get to the nearest star even at faster speeds than is now possible using conventional means? The mind boggles at the distances involved, and maybe it’s a good thing, considering our present systems’ proclivity to enslave and make war upon whoever gets in the way of progress. The universe will be a safer place if they can just keep the human race in quarantine, until it can work out it’s violent tendencies. Do we let children ride by themselves on the main midway rides? No, they keep us on training wheels in the kiddie section, because obviously we’re not mature enough to get ourselves anywhere ‘out there’ in the universe without destroying something valuable in the process, or destroying ourselves in some mad power grab whilst planting the flag for posterity. Bombing the moon, just consider how much sense that made?

    • Anonymous says:

      Bombing the moon made a lot of sense if you looked at what they were doing and why, instead of assuming it’s some strange military statement.

      Why does everyone think humanity is unusually violent? What are you comparing us to? Peaceful, benevolent aliens who want to nurture us are make a nice father figure mythology, but there’s no reason to suppose that’s how it works.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    As a side note: Someone who managed to portrait an universe full of cultures at extremely different levels of development and their interaction is Ian Banks with his culture books.

    It’s fascinating to see his thoughts on how a civilization at the brink of industrialization would behave if it was aware and in contact with races far more advanced then themselves, like in the current culture novel “Matter”.

    • Anonymous says:

      Instead of reading fiction, why not try to apply the ‘directive’ to living cultures now endangered on our own planet?

      I guess a few pygmys dying off in the Andeman islands don’t amount to much.

      Until we find value in letting things be instead of trying to find a profit in everyone and everything the minority will always be overwhelmed. The thing is we rarely realize the true value of something until it’s absence.

      Who knows, perhaps the aliens are watching and waiting to see how we treat our own before deciding to wipe us out in a preemptive strike?

  18. ptrourke says:

    Is there any bibliography one could take a look at to get a handle on these issues? (And I don’t mean general-readership stuff.)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Mao Tse Tung once said that logic can be made to prove anything.

    I’m sure that someone one day will rationalize that laws to protect ourselves or other species are made to be broken. And we will all pay the price for someone’s lack of ethical reasoning.

    Already, legal sophistry can be created to prove that anything we do — or choose not to do — complies with (or) is non-compliant to the U.S. Constitution and/or the U.S. Code of Law that supports it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Mao Tse Tung once said that logic can be made to prove anything.

      Are you sure you’re not thinking of Picasso, or possibly Homer Simpson?

      “Facts… pffft… Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” — Homer

  21. Anonymous says:

    I doubt alien viruses/bacteria will work on human bodies. Parasites evolve to live in their hosts, so they would probably die when they got here and found no suitable hosts. (Ants can’t get colds, and humans can’t get blight.)

  22. Anonymous says:

    “I’m working on a paper right now comparing the international treaties concerning outer space with those that cover the Antarctic . . .”
    Are they kidding?
    Lets get out there and strip-mine the asteroids! Hydroponic tunnels in the Moon for grain shipments and chemical plants plastered across the dark side.
    Its the only way we’re going to give the rest of humanity the standard of living we’ve had in the West for so long – and more improtantly, spread our genepool outside the single fragile basket, that seems so prone to disaster (man-made included).
    Don’t worry about exploiting home-turf – its a bigger universe out there that you think and its going to take a whole chunk of resources to get out there.

  23. johnca says:

    Banks’ SF suggests more nuanced possibilities — The Culture is decidedly accepting of interfering in less advanced civilizations. Doris Lessing also explores this ground in depth in her Canopus series, as do the Strugatsky Brothers in their Noon stories. There’s also of course David Brin’s Uplift novels.

    Most of what they explore is far in our future (unless the aliens among us reveal themselves soon :-). Still interesting, both for its own sake, and for looking at relationships among groups of humans, and between humans and non-sentient species.

    As for the more mundane issues the OPP addresses – SpaceGhost, how would you feel about your million dollar bet if we found life on Mars(/Titan/Enceladus/Europa) and then weren’t sure if it was native, or a mutation from something we had accidentally introduced?

  24. Anonymous says:

    ” star trek’s prime directive: don’t muck around in the affairs of planets that are less technologically advanced than yours…despite how often it gets ignored”…you mean like in EVERY episode?? just goes to show that those who swear to uphold the rules are the first to ignore them…

  25. SpaceGhost says:

    I propose a scientific way to determine if we can pollute mars with our bacteria or not. We should build a chamber with martian atmosphere, light levels, and ground composition. Then place all kinds of bacteria, amoebas, fungus, and see if any of them can take hold and survive well enough to breed. If the answer for any is yes then we can narrow what types of earth based life are (and what types aren’t) likely to take hold on the surface of mars after we arrive. Then after we do arrive if we find something in the wild its genetic makeup can be compared to all known varieties that can survive there. If its not a match then its likely a new species (and should stand out in some way from any earth variety), but if it is a match then likely its ours. As for Titan/Enceladus/Europa, humans may be interested in those places but Mars is a planet we could potentially transform and live on while those places we reasonably could not and as such it is less likely we will ever introduce living things to them in the immediate future of human space exploration (I never argued against sterilizing probes, just the likelihood of actually finding life).

    • ptrourke says:

      That is a lot harder than you think it is, SpaceGhost. For one thing, we only know the most gross characteristics of the Martian environment, so replicating it is going to be pretty damned hard.

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