The Outside Prognosticator: Deep Space Shine

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Outside magazine, January 1996

The Outside Prognosticator: Deep Space Shine

Step one in sterilizing a spaceship is to swab the decks, knobs, and fuzzy mirror dice with rubbing alcohol. Step two is to bake the ship in a giant oven until any surviving microbes say “gaaack.” Do a good job or you’ll answer to the scolding spirit of Captain Kirk, and you know what he’d say: “What…right had we…to give chicken pox to…worlds unknown?” With Pathfinder, a
one-way research spacecraft, set to blast off for Mars next December, scientists are again fretting over what might be called the quest for spotlessness: making sure that our deep-space shooters are spiffy and planning for a future in which we’ll start bringing them back. Pathfinder leads a new generation of probes that tomorrow may head for the stars, and scientists with a
galactically environmental mindset–such as Michael A. Meyer, NASA’s planetary protection officer–believe we must take extra-special care not to spit in the ocean.

We also have to watch out for incoming. Later this year, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a panel of microbiologists and physicists assigned to figure out the best way to protect Earth from a real-life Andromeda Strain.

“Sterilization wasn’t taken as seriously as it could have been during the moon shots,” says John R. Bagby, leader of the Apollo quarantine group, whose elaborate regs unraveled somewhat amid the hoopla of the astronauts’ return. While Mars isn’t likely to have an ecosystem, living microbes are theoretically possible, causing Bagby to ever-so-slightly furrow his brow. “Mars,” he
says, “worries me more that the Moon ever did.”

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