Barry E. DiGregorio
16 N. Hartland Street
Middleport, NY 14105
April 13, 2000
Dr. John Rummel, NASA Planetary Protection Officer
Building HQ: Room: 5K71
Washington, DC 20546-0001
Dear Dr. Rummel,
You may recall a series of exchanges we had about a year or so ago in
Space News and other media regarding Mars Sample Return and planetary
protection issues. We were further joined by the likes of such scientists
as Dr. David McKay, Dr. Gilbert Levin, and Dr. Harold Klien.
As you know, I am the Founder and Director of the International Committee
Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR). We began organizing as a group in
January of 1999. Today we have numerous members (over 2868) - many are
from other countries and we keep growing every week. If you have not
already I encourage you to read through the ICAMSR Website info to
thoroughly understand what we want to accomplish. Our Petition was drafted
in part by one of the Principal Investigators for the Viking biology
experiments, Dr. Gilbert V. Levin and Dr. Carl Woese who made some suggestions.
Dr. Levin as you know also served on a number of early Mars Sample Return
committee's sponsored for the most part by NASA. Dr. Levin as well as
Dr. Carl Sagan (founder of the Planetary Society) were never keen on the
idea of bringing Mars Samples back to the Earth. They never believed that
a fool proof containment system could be developed for sample return return
missions, which might contain biohazardous materials. Dr. Carl Sagan who
wanted to illustrate this point, challenged JPL engineers in 1983 by asking
them if they were so sure that an MSR return and capsule could be foolproof,
they should prove it by placing living Anthrax germs in a prototype Mars
Sample Return capsule, launch it into space, return it on an exact trajectory
as would the MSR capsule, have the capsule (without parachute as is planned)
impact the Utah desert, and if it isn't leaking its cargo, take it to a high
level biohazard containment facility and run the samples through the planetary
quarantine system to see if protocols worked as intended.
Obviously, Sagan never won any points with the JPL engineers supporting MSR.
But, there is yet another more important matter that bothers me about NASA
and the National Academy of Sciences/Space Studies Board. Dr. Levin and his
Viking biology team co-experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, both have had
their peer reviewed and published scientific papers in prestigious scientific
journals that indicate that indeed they found evidence (not proof!) for
microbial activity on Mars from their Viking biology experiments. Dr. Carl Sagan
(before he died) and Dr. David McKay both have stated publicly that the Viking
biology experiment data ought to be looked at again. So intrigued was I by Levin
and Straat's work that I decided to write a book about their search for life on
Mars called "Mars The Living Planet". Dr. Troy Wood a Professor from the
University of Buffalo's Chemistry Department reviewed my book for Spectroscopy
magazine in November of 1999. This review is online at the ICAMSR website
(section - book reviews). Dr. Wood is an expert in the field of spectroscopy,
and says the Viking GCMS was flawed. So why hasn't NASA run any laboratory
simulations to see if he and other scientists are correct? The Viking GCMS
results are key as they were used to render the verdict of "no life on the
surface of Mars". This data has vast implications for MSR and other missions
It seems to me that Dr. Levin and Dr. Straat have been unjustly ignored by
the NASA scientific community and their peer reviewed scientific papers have
been conveniently sidestepped by NASA and the Space Studies Board. These papers
are never referenced in any of the numerous SSB publications on Mars Sample Return.
Why should this be? Why would NASA want to ignore peer reviewed scientific
documentation that provides evidence for the discovery of life on Mars?
I discussed this issue with Dr. Allan Trieman of the Lunar and Planetary
Institute in Houston, Texas. Without telling Dr. Trieman that I was the
Director of ICAMSR, I asked him what would happen to any NASA Mars plans
if it were confirmed that we found life on Mars. Guess what he said? He
told me (I have his letter right in front of me) that if NASA announced
to the world they found life on Mars that a Mars Sample Return would not
ever happen and that human exploration plans of Mars would be put on hold
indefinitely. So my question is then -- is MSR or human exploration of Mars
so important as to risk the safety of our biosphere? NASA admits the risk
(Of global contamination? The severity of the risk is not defined in the
SSB report) is not zero...so then the question becomes why should we take
such a risk in the first place?
We do have new technologies to investigate the issue of life on Mars - on
the surface of Mars itself without risk to earth's biosphere. Besides this,
MSR is an international issue that needs to be addressed by all nations.
Furthermore the legality of the international transport of suspected
biohazardous materials from one planet to another is very vague. If you read
our ICAMSR Petition closely, you will see that we at ICAMSR have thought long
and hard about the issues of planetary protection and the future of robotic Mars
Exploration. We feel Marsís exploration is extremely important and that increased
funding should be allocated to NASA by Congress to solve the riddle of life on
Mars. But not with the risk of Mars Sample Return. At least not yet. Not until we
have conducted preliminary life sciences survey of the entire planet by robotic
spacecraft. Sure this would take time, but it would be worth insuring that our
planet is not overrun with a possible epidemic we would have no knowledge to
control, and no matter what justification you try and use Dr. Rummel, you cannot
guarantee this would not be the case.
I would like to recommend that Dr. Levin, Dr. Straat, and perhaps myself be
allowed to be a part of your new NAC committee to investigate the wisdom of MSR.
Clearly ICAMSR represents an honest opposition to MSR. But we do favor the further
exploration of Mars. Having ICAMSR represented in your group would demonstrate your
groupís sincerity and unbiased approach to the issue of Mars Sample Return.
If you have difficulty reaching me by telephone then E-mail is best.
Barry E. DiGregorio
Founder and Executive Director for ICAMSR