ICAMSR - International Committee Against Mars Sample Return

Barry E. DiGregorio
16 N. Hartland Street
Middleport, NY 14105

April 13, 2000

Dr. John Rummel, NASA Planetary Protection Officer
NASA Headquarters
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 to Mars.

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.

Signature of Barry DiGregorio
Barry E. DiGregorio
Founder and Executive Director for ICAMSR