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Abstract

Any lifeforms on Mars could be at risk if we fail to follow Star Trek's 'Prime Directive'.
8/26/2016 NZSMOnLineTenyearsofNewZealandScienceMonthlymagazine
http://nzsm.webcentre.co.nz/article287.htm 1/5
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MartiansBeware!
AnylifeformsonM arscouldbeatriskifwefailtofollowStarTrek'sPrimeDirective.
AlanMarshall
AboardtheStarshipEnterprisethereexistsacardinalrulegoverningtheactionsoftheStarTrekcrewas
itgallivantsaroundthegalaxy,boldlygoingwherenoonehasgonebefore.Labelledthe"PrimeDirective",
thisethicalrulestatesthathumansshallnotinterferewithanyalienlifeencounteredlestthealiens,and
theirsocialorphysicalenvironment,bedestroyedorirrevocablydamaged.
Themostnotablemediumofsuchinterferenceisthroughtheactionofinvasivemicroorganisms.The
writersofStarTrekhaveinventedaconvenientpieceoftechnologytohandlesuchinterplanetarytransfer
ofgerms.W henbeamingofftoanewplanet,"biofilters"installedintheEnterprise'stransporter
supposedlyfilteroutgermsaccompanyingthecrew.
Twentiethcenturyspaceexplorationhasnosuchbiofiltertechnologyandifpresentproposalstoexplore
andcolonisetheplanetMarsgoahead,humansmayspreadthesporesofdestructionforcountless
extraterrestrialspecies.ThiswouldconstituteafailingofthePrimeDirectiveatitsfirsttest.
Thescientificandastronauticcommunityhaslookedintotheproblemofthecontaminationofother
worldswithEarthmicrobes,andtherearepoliciesinplacetoensuremicrobialstowawaysarenotcarried
throughoutthesolarsystemaboardroboticprobes.However,withhumanexploration,preventionof
contaminationwouldbeimpossible.Thereislittlechanceofsterilisingahumantothesamedegreeof
decontaminationasispossiblewitharobot.
MarsBeckons
8/26/2016 NZSMOnLineTenyearsofNewZealandScienceMonthlymagazine
http://nzsm.webcentre.co.nz/article287.htm 2/5
ThefavouredplanetwhenitcomestohumanexplorationofthesolarsystemisMars.Eversincethe
completionoftheApollolunarlandings,MarshasbeentheprimecandidateforboththeUSandRussian
assaultonthespacefrontier.Whatmaybetheconsequencesofsuchhumanendeavoursforanynative
Martianlifeform?
Thequestionisnullandvoidtomanyspaceexplorationadvocates,sincetheyfeelthattheVikingproject
ofthe1970sprovedMarstobedevoidoflife.Butitdidnosuchthing.Itmerelyestablishedthattherewere
noEarthlikelifeformslocatedinthetwoparticularsitesthattheVikingLandersvisited.Vikingproject
scientistsstilldebatetheefficacyoftheVikinglifedetectionexperimentsandwhethersomeformoflife
wasactuallyfound.
Havingsaidthisthough,itiscertainlythepervadingfeelingamongstthescienceandastronautics
communitiesthatMarsislifeless.Thereexistimportantextrascientificfactorsthatcancontributetoan
explanationofwhythereisthisunwillingnesstoadmitthepossibilityoflifeonMars.
ThelegacyofPercivalLowellandhisfancifulMartiancanalssetsahistoricalprecedentthat
encouragesanultraconservativeapproachwhenitcomestoMartianbiology.Sincethen,progressively
moremodesttheoriesofMartianlifehavebeenputforwardfromMartiancivilisations,toforestedplains,
throughtodeserttypevegetationcommunities.Allofthesehavesuccessivelysuccumbedtooblivionas
ourknowledgeofMars'physicalenvironmenthasincreased.Fewscientistswishtobeseenas"bio
optimists"sincehistorydictatesthatyouaregoingtogetitwrong.
GrantedthatawidespreadbiotaonMarsisabsent,thepossibilityofextantmicrofloralcommunitiesdoes
exist.Currentlytherearenumerousscientistsaroundtheworldpresentingcrediblemodelsofpossible
Martianlife.LynnRothschildofNASAhasproposedamodelofMartianlifesimilartothosemicrobial
communitiesfoundintheevaporiticdepositsofBajaCaliforniansaltpans.ScientistsatRussia'sInstitute
ofSoilSciencehaveputforwardamodelofextantMartianlifebasedonnitrifyingbacteriafoundinthe
SiberianArctic.ThealgaethatliveinsidetherocksoftheAntarcticdryvalleysalsoserveasexamplesof
whatlifeonMarsmaybelike.
ForeignColonists
IfthereislifeonMars,whyshoulditbebotheredbytheintroductionofterrestrialmicrobes?New
Zealandersareparticularlyawareofthepotentialofinvasivespeciesinaffectingtheindigenousbiotaof
anecologicalcommunity.JustasinNewZealand,anendemicMartianecologymaybeintensely
susceptibletoinvasionbyforeignspecies.StudiesaboardtheSpaceShuttleandotherspacecrafthave
shownthatterrestrialmicrobesareenviablyabletotoleratetheextremesofspaceenvironments.Ifa
microbefindsitswaytoMarsviahumanexploration,itmayimpingeonthenativemicrobialspeciesina
numberofways:
8/26/2016 NZSMOnLineTenyearsofNewZealandScienceMonthlymagazine
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aninvasivemicrobemayproducesubstancespoisonoustonativespecies(antibiosis)
aninvasivemicrobemaypredateuponanativespeciestoobtainitscarbon,nitrogen,water
(phagocytosis)
aninvasivemicrobemayinvadethecellsofanativespeciestofacilitateitsownreproduction
(infection)
invasivemicrobesmayoutcompetenativespeciesforscarceresourcessuchaswater,light,
shadeorspace(competitiveexclusion)
aninvasivemicrobemayaltertheMartianenvironmentinsuchawaythatthechangekillsthe
nativespecies
Whileinfectionmaybeunlikely,asitreliesonthespecificityofahostparasiterelationshiparrived
atthroughacoevolutionaryheritage,theotherthreatsarereal.
Thattheabovethreatscanbecontainedatthepointofinitialcontaminationmaybeafalse
expectation.Bacterialandfungalsporesmaybecarriedthousandsofkilometresbytheepisodic
Martianduststorms.Andthewidertheexplorationactivitiesofhumansthewiderwillbethe
disseminationofterrestrialorganisms.IntheeventofhumancolonisationofMars,noindigenous
microbialcommunitymaysurviveuntouched,particularlywhenhumanpollutantsbecome
widespreadasthatmightworksynergisticallytoenhancetheinvasionbyEarthmicrobes.Puttinga
fencearoundareservationisevenlesslikelytoworkonMarsthanitdoesonEarth.
OnthemostMarslikeenvironmentonEarththedryinlandvalleysofAntarcticaintroduced
microbesfromscientificpersonnelhavecommonlygrownandreproducedmorerapidlyandat
lowertemperaturesthantheindigenousAntarcticmicrobes.ScientificexplorersonMars(orforthat
matterinAntarctica)musttreadwarilyincasetheirexplorationsimpingeontheintegrityofa
microbialecosystemorinduceextinctionofmicrobialspecies.
SotheremaybemicrobiallifeofMars.Andsohumanactivitieshavethecapacitytodestroysuch
life.Sowhat?WespendalargeoftimeandresourcestryingtoridourselvesofmicrobesonEarth,
whyshouldweletmicrobesstandinthewayofhumanspaceexploration?Humansarehumans
andmicrobesare...well...justinvisiblebugs.
ThisispreciselythesortofattitudeEuropeanshavehadinthepasttoindigenoushuman
populationsduringtheircolonialexpansion.Indigenouspeopleswerethoughtofasbeingsomesort
ofsublevelofhumanswhowerenotworthyofthemoralconsiderabilityaffordedtoEuropeans.We
havejustaboutgotoversuchbrashracism(atleasttheoretically),butnowtheenvironmental
movementchallengesustorejectanthropocentrism.Justasthewhitemanisnotthemeasureof
allthingshuman,sohumanityisnotthemeasureofallthingsliving.
BioticEgalitarianism
8/26/2016 NZSMOnLineTenyearsofNewZealandScienceMonthlymagazine
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Anethicofbioticegalitarianismisemerginginenvironmentalismanditsuggeststhathumansand
microbesexistsidebysideontheladderofmoralconsiderability.Itmightbedifficultcontemplatingsuch
aperspective.Certainlymicrobesarenotcuddlylikekoalas,norgracefullikeorcaorenchantinglike
kauri.Butthesearehumanascribedqualities.Andtheyoftenfallshortofsomeofthelessaesthetic
species,whohaveasmuchrighttoanexistenceashumansandthelifeformsweregardasbeautiful.
Ifyouchoosenottobuyintosuchbioticegalitarianism,youmaystillwishtoprotectMartianlifeforwhatit
couldmeanforscience.Discoveringextraterrestriallifewouldbeamonumentalmomentinscientific
advancement,andtojeopardisesuchanopportunitybyputtinghumansonMarswouldbetoblaspheme
thespiritofscience.ThushumanexplorationofMarscanjollywellwaittillwehavethoroughlyexplored
MarswithdecontaminatedroboticprobessoastodeterminewhetherMarshaslife.Butthereisa
paradoxhere.Itisprobablethatroboticprobeswillonlyeverdeliverambiguousresultswithregardsto
Martianbiology.ToreallyfindoutifthereislifeonMars,humans(andtheiraccompanyingmicrobiota)
havetogotheretodoit,thusendangeringtheverylifetheyseektodiscover.
ThatMartianlifeisvaluableforscientificreasonswilltosomeextentensureapreservationistattitudeto
Mars.Butmorethanthat,Martianlifeisintrinsicallyvaluable.Martianmicrobeshavenoobligationto
contributetohumanscientificknowledge,andthesearchforsuchknowledgeshouldnotcompromisethe
intrinsicvalueofMartianlife.
Manyofthosepeoplethatproposetoexpandhumanityintospacedosoontheenticingnotionthatitisa
naturalandinevitableprocess.Justasatreecastsforthitsseedstocoloniseanewpieceofground,so
humansareseekingtoexpandtheirecologicaldomain.Suchanaturalisticinterpretationevadesthefact
thatspaceexpansionisasocialphenomenon,notabiologicalone.
Adispersingseedactsaccordingtogeneticallyandecologicallyprescribedruleswhichhavebeenarrived
atthroughmillionsofyearsofbiologicalevolution.Theentitiestakingpartinspaceexpansion(namely
nations,spaceagenciesandprivateaerospacecompanies)aresocialentitiesthatactaccordingto
socialforcesarrivedatthroughthecourseofsocial,politicalandeconomichistory(processesquite
differenttobiologicalevolution).Farfrombeinginourgenes,twentiethcenturyspaceexplorationisa
demonstrablephenomenonofColdWarhistory.TheUSApolloprojectwasinitiatedasanationalistic
responsetotheperceivedstrategicthreatposedbytheSovietUnion'snewlyestablishedrocketpotential.
IdoubtstronglythatNeilArmstrongorBuzzAldrinhavespecificgenescodingforspaceexplorationin
theirrespectivegenomes.
Theseeddispersalanalogyarguesthatinterplanetaryexpansionbyhumansisanaturalphenomenon,
justasitisnaturalforaseedtocoloniseanewlandmass.However,ahumanembryoisnot
anatomicallyadaptedtousingspaceasamediumofdispersal,asaplantembryo(seed)isadaptedto
usingwindorthefeathersofamigratorybirdasadispersalmedium.Nordoesahumanembryohappen
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tospontaneouslyfallintospaceandcommencetocoloniseanotherplanet(inanythingotherthanthe
metaphysicalsense).
Spaceexplorationisaromanticpursuit.Butweshouldnotlettheromanceofhumanactivitiesinspace
blindustothepossibilitythatweareendangeringthesurvivalofextraterrestrialspecies.Nexttimeyou
chanceuponCaptainKirkandhisgallantcrewzoomingfromplanettoplanetinthecornerofyourliving
room,youmaystoptoponderhowmanyextinctspecieshemayhaveleftinhiswake,andwhethersuch
explorationsofdestructionaretobeinitiatedinyourlifetime.
AlanMarshallisstudyingatMasseyUniversity,wherehehasbeenresearchingintothesocialand
environmentalimplicationsofspacedevelopment,attheInstituteofDevelopmentalStudies.
AlanMarshallisstudyingatMasseyUniversity,wherehehasbeenresearchingintothesocialandenvironmentalimplications
ofspacedevelopment,attheInstituteofDevelopmentalStudies.
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