commentary

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  Space News Business

commentary

posted: 31 January 2005
11:03 am ET


It has been widely acknowledged that NASA faces serious budgetary and safety challenges in the post-Columbia period. As the return-to-flight for space shuttles draws closer and NASA’s restructuring for the new “Moon-to-Mars” vision becomes deeper, these challenges put great pressure on meeting higher safety standards.

Without significant increases in NASA’s budget, not only will various science programs have to be sacrificed for the vision , but the safety of the current work environment at NASA and its contractors also will be affected. In this environment, it is only natural to wonder about potential shortcomings in the safety of future space missions, whether to the Moon or elsewhere.

The recent discovery of water on Mars is a stunning achievement of NASA’s robotic missions. It also has opened up a possibility of past life on Mars and potential colonies of bacteria, which might have survived the harsh Mars environment in more hospitable places. These are truly remarkable new frontiers in space exploration and space science. One should not be blinded, however, by these new prospects of martian microorganisms.

We have to be open to all possibilities associated with new scientific endeavors, whether it is a Mars mission or nanotechnology back here on Earth.

Recently, Jeffrey Kargel, a geologist with the U. S. Geological Survey, warned in an article in Science magazine that NASA Mars missions might bring bacteria to Earth from the cold surface of Mars. The low temperatures, apparently, do not ensure sterility; as scientists have actually “observed a panoply of bacteria and fungi that survived the frigid vacuum of space, including microbes which lived dormant for six years aboard an orbiting satellite launched in 1984.”

While the possibility of bringing martian bacteria may be small, scientists have to consider it. There are other hazards to consider as well, because the contamination of spacecraft may become a more challenging problem due to the potential for nanotechnology-based contamination back here on Earth.

NASA has various procedures for cleaning and sterilizing spacecraft components. These procedures typically involve heating to high temperatures or using chemicals (fluids and gases). Wearing the clean suits during the assembly and working in sterile rooms allow engineers to reduce the number of bacterial spores. The current limit for such spores seems to be no more than 300,000 for a spacecraft like a Mars rover.

However, protecting astronaut health goes beyond avoiding the contamination of Mars, as an astronaut can be exposed to the airborne microorganisms and sub-micron particles for months even during current space missions.

While NASA has proven methods to clean familiar spacecraft environment, the agency is slow in developing new ways to deal with potential hazards stemming from nanotechnology.

Moreover, the potentially toxic nanoparticles may harm not only future astronauts, but also a much wider range of NASA employees, visiting scholars and, especially, students. The nanoparticles can become easily airborne and, hence, making it possible to inhale them. Recent reports by the British Royal Society and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health raised serious questions about the potential hazards of nanoparticles.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report highlighted the lack of safety culture in NASA’s shuttle programs for the manned space missions; however, other programs may not be immune to it either. According to the CAIB report, NASA’s field centers seem to have excellent safety programs “on paper”; even so there are a few problems with documentation. The later problem has been recently underscored by the revelation of a fabricated safety report at one of NASA’s field centers.

NASA engineers are generally good in following the established procedures, both formal and informal. However, at the onset of new interdisciplinary programs that involve emerging technological advances in such areas as nanotechnology, there are no proven safety procedures. In such cases, the can-do culture and the complacent attitudes toward potential problems may result in serious shortcomings in safety of the changing work environment and, ultimately, that of the new spacecrafts. These safety issues may be especially important to future spacecraft made of nanostructured materials and propelled by nuclear power.

A general discussion of potential safety hazards associated with emerging technologies may seem as relevant as the martian bacteria.

However, at many academic, government and industrial research laboratories many people are embarking on new projects in bio- and nanotechnology. Most of the new projects often begin with incomplete equipment or temporary work environment (or even moving labs into temporary buildings). It would be naive to assume that the old safety procedures can address the potential hazards, and the need for new diagnostic equipment and updating safety procedures beyond cosmetic adjustments.

The changing work environment should be periodically assessed by competent working groups of professionals whose performance is tied not to seemingly excellent safety records on paper , but to proactive safety culture thorough investigations of voiced concerns and well-documented follow ups.

Such efforts should contribute to higher safety standards and a more productive and healthy work environment not only inside NASA spacecraft , but in the lab space as well.

Vasyl Michael Harik, Ph.D., is a nanotechnology consultant.