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Hey, Curiosity scientists, didn't you see 'Alien'?

September 10, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
(Los Angeles Times )

Not content with messing up Earth, apparently we’ve taken to messing up other planets.

The Times’ Louis Sagahun reported Monday that the Mars rover Curiosity’s “drill bits may be contaminated with Earth microbes. If they are, and if those bits touch water, the organisms could survive.”

Seems that Curiosity was initially sterilized, then some folks got cold feet about the rover’s ability to drill once it hit the surface of the Red Planet, so they opened the box of drill bits and put one bit into Curiosity’s drill. 

NASA being NASA, there are rules for handling this sort of thing, including that the “planetary protection officer,” one Catharine Conley, was supposed to be consulted.  But NASA being NASA, she wasn’t.

And NASA being NASA, there’s someone ready with a soothing explanation:

“Water or ice near the surface in Gale Crater was not a significant probability," said David Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters. "We weighed that against the risks of not having a bit mounted in the drill prior to launch, and the specter of not being able to drill any holes at all on Mars."

Which sounds good, until you read the kicker:

“Of course, there is always a possibility that Mars will surprise us," Lavery said.

Admittedly, I’m no scientist. Lavery’s probably right. It’s probably not a big deal.

Then again, that’s what Ripley and her crew thought when they ran across that derelict spaceship in “Alien.”  And we all know how that turned out. 

Imagine: One minute our little rover’s drill bit is hitting water, and the next, some alien creature is clawing its way out of someone’s chest. (OK, I have a too-active imagination. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many movies.)

Perhaps the more apt analogy would be Columbus and the Europeans' discovery of America.  The diseases those early explorers brought with them decimated the indigenous population of the New World.

So, the better question might be: Why didn’t NASA follow protocol?

As Conley says of the opening of the drill bit box:

"They shouldn't have done it without telling me. It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules."

But hey, we’re only talking about contaminating another planet.  What could go wrong? (Uh, again, see “Aliens” and “Alien 3” and “Alien: Resurrection.”)

Seriously, NASA seems to have a nasty habit of putting procedures in place that aren’t really procedures.  On Earth, that has cost lives.

On Mars, that could cost us a scientific breakthrough. 

And that might be the nastiest surprise of all.

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