CCNet LETTERS, 12 February 1999

    Sir Arthur C Clarke, Sri Lanka

    Michael Paine <>

    Jens Kieffer-Olsen <>

    E.P. Grondine <>


From Sir Arthur C Clarke, Sri Lanka

Dear Benny,

     Amused by Scott Manley's comments on ARMAGEDDON, which I've not
yet seen.
     I have seen DEEP IMPACT, which I thought fairly good - but not
as good as it should have been if Spielberg had used THE HAMMER OF
GOD! I didn't even get a credit and wept bitterly all the way to the
bank. However, he still has the option - perhaps he'll do the job
properly in a few years time...

       All best,
                Sir Arthur  Clarke
                               11 Feb 99  (Whoops - 1999!)


From Michael Paine <>

The paper "Breaking and Splitting asteroids by nuclear explosions to
propel and deflect their trajectories" by D. Fargion may be of interest.
It is available at
(mirror site of an LANL document service which has
many other scientific papers)

Michael Paine


From Jens Kieffer-Olsen <>

    From Alan Fitzsimmons <A.Fitzsimmons@Queens-Belfast.AC.UK>

Judging from the current debate I gather it's time to agree (to
avoid real controversy ) that KBO's smaller than Pluto and yet to be
discovered will not be counted as planets. At the same time I hope
agreement can be reached to allow objects larger than Pluto the
honour of becoming our solar system's 10th, 11th, etc. planets.

It would be exciting to the public, if such a new planet was spotted
the way some of our contributors seem to anticipate. In fact, also
objects propelled into highly elliptical orbits by Jupiter aeons ago
might supposedly show up one day. Even if in cometary orbits I
believe any such massive objects still deserve the distinction.

For Spaceguard purposes the discovery of planet-sized bodies in
rogue orbits would be bad news, since the Armageddon scenario of an
object the size of Texas hitting Earth would all of a sudden be
science fiction no more. One thousand years of preparation might not
be enough to avert a direct doomsday hit.

Jens Kieffer-Olsen, M.Sc.(Elec.Eng.)


From E.P. Grondine <>

Benny -

Here follows a somewhat hopelessly subjective report of my interview
with John Rummel of NASA's Planetary Protection Office. I don't think
you will mind my sharing with the Conference my initial reluctance to
report this, and your request to keep the Conference posted. I think
that by the end of this dispatch the reasons for my reluctance will be
clear.  Here goes -

Several weeks ago I attended the headquarter's press briefing for the
Stardust mission.  As most of the Conference participants are fully
aware of Stardust, if they are not actually participants in it, my
intention was simply to gather information on the technologies for
interception that Stardust would testing. I was pleasantly surprised to
find that John Rummel, head of NASA's Planetary Protection Office, was
going to be among the panelists.  I sought to ask Rummel about back
contamination in general, and he graciously gave me an extended

An important point to remember here is that unlike the case in the
Soviet Union, where Mars missions were secret, and discussions of the
back contamination problem were held among the scientists in secret, in
both the United States and France the issue will be discussed openly.
This will entail a public debate, and public perceptions will be
important.  In this regards, in the United States the public's
perception of the hazard of back contamination from a comet or
meteorite has been influenced by the popular movie "The Blob".  This
movie starred a young Steve McQueen, and in it a meteorite delivered a
gelatinous creature to the Earth which ate several hapless teenagers
and part of a town before it was stopped by the US Army. Rummel's
appearance at the Stardust briefing was largely to put at ease any
concerns which the public might have that NASA's Stardust mission might
trigger such an event, and to explain why this was not even remotely

The most important item that I received from Rummel was confirmation of
NASA management's focus on a manned Mars mission as the next project
after space station, with a landing date of 2010. I had earlier
reported to the Conference Dan Goldin's statement to John McLaughlin
that men could be landed on Mars by 2010, and Rummel confirmed this.
Towards the end of the interview I asked Rummel how many samples he
would feel comfortable with before manned flight, and he said 3.  As a
follow-up, I asked him if this meant 2 more before 2010, and he told
me, "That's the plan."

Naturally, I was pleased at this "scoop", but the members of the
Conference can now read about NASA's manned Mars plans in a fully
illustrated article by Paul Raebun in the February issue of Popular
Science.  In brief, when the RLV and EELVs come on-line in about 2005
or so, NASA is looking at converting the shuttle into a heavy lift
vehicle by simply removing the main engines from the shuttle and
putting them onto a recoverable capsule.  With a drop in the price to
orbit of 2 orders of magnitude, manned Mars missions become financially
possible, and a number of different manned mission architectures are
being closely examined.

Earlier, a Moon based array telescope capable of extra-solar system
planet resolution had been in contention as the follow-up project to
the Space Station (see the post to the Conference of the abstract on
the ISE with Goldin as co-author). Naturally, these capabilities could
have been used for the detection of smaller NEOs, provided that a fully
automated computer detection, orbit determination, and identification
system could be developed to handle their far larger numbers (pace
Steel).  This is pretty much now out of the running, and barring a
substantial impact, or the discovery by the Shoemaker search of a NEO
on an Earth collision course, Conference members may not expect
capabilities to detect smaller NEOs until after 2010. Even then, this
capability will probably only be developed if the smaller impacts for
the last 5,000 years or so can be fully documented through field work
guided by rigourous historical research.

Rummel's own estimate of the likelihood of Martian extremophiles was
indicated by his statement that sub-surface drilling operations on Mars
would have to be conducted with the greatest care.  While I share the
hopes of many that Mars is a biologically friendly environment, and
that both manned exploration as well as settlement will be possible,
hopes do not make science. If Rummel's right on this, and if any
Martian sub-surface organisms turn out to be not friendly, the
terra-forming and settlement of Mars will simply be out of the
question. Operationally, Rummel's estimate of the likelyhood of
existence of surface extremophiles on Mars is pretty much close to
zero, as will be seen.

The earlier post to the Conference which first prompted me to write on
the topic of back contamination asserted that the exchange of life
between planets by impact debris had been adopted by NASA as policy.
This was confirmed at the briefing, and I must retract my earlier
scepticism of this claim, as well as my subsequent statements on
National Research Council courses of action. At the briefing I saw for
the first time a report from a 7 to 8 person subcommittee of the
National Research Council which set out a detailed flow-chart on the
pre-conditions necessary for extreme biological containment measures to
be taken.  The final step in the flow-chart was the decision point,
"Have living organisms been previously exchanged?", and going to the
explanation I found that impact was the mechanism of exchange set out.
I wish I could give a fuller citation for the NRC report, but this is
the only copy of it that I have ever seen.

This produces in me a certain feeling of irony, and I need to go into
these feelings now. The first items from me ever to be posted to the
Conference, and this was done by others long before I even knew the
Conference existed, were my questions on the meteorite list to Ron
Baalke of JPL about JPL's seeming obliviousness to the most important
mechanism in Mars' geological processes in the last several billion
years, impact events, in light of the quite obvious craters and rubble
that were all around Pathfinder.  I was simply sick and tired of
hearing the phrase "Earth-like Mars" coming from JPL, when what Mars is
is Mars-like, dammit. I was told at the time that in all their press
releases JPL had included 2 sentences, so they had covered the issue

Now I'm told by the NRC subcommittee that yes, indeed, there have been
plenty of impacts, so frequent and massive that they have transported
living organisms to the Earth.  So I go from being told that 2+2=3 to
being told that 2+2=5. Well, the last I heard most of the specialists
were waiting for the data from Mars Global Surveyor before refining
their impact histories and rate estimates for Mars, and it strikes me
that the members of the NRC subcommittee were being somewhat premature
in making this kind of detailed assertion before that data comes in.

Next I come to the other assertion put forth by the NRC subcommittee,
that these impacts transported living organisms from Mars to the Earth,
and vice-versa. Here again irony intrudes. Dr. McKay has been trying
for the last several year just to establish that a fossil was delivered
to the Earth by impact, little less a living organism, and he has been
facing extreme scepticism.  Rummel mentioned in discussing the Stardust
danger with Paul Hoversten of USA Today, who I had invited over to join
with me in the interview, the lethal effects of radiation and
temperature in the space environment, and here on the other hand we
have the NRC subcommittee minimizing them.  Finally, from what I know
of the mechanics of large scale impacts (which knowledge is very
limited, I admit), the deeper rocks are pretty much vaporized, so any
life forms exchanged would have to come from the planets' surfaces.

I don't care if this report does come from an NRC subcommittee, and I
know others here who are specialists in this area will strongly
disagree with me on this, but it still strikes me that putting forth
hypothesis as fact and then using it to guide national policy is bad
science in the extreme.

The previous post to the Conference also stated that the hypothesis of
the impact exchange of living organisms had been adopted by NASA as
policy, and in this they were again correct. The NRC Subcommittee
report was dated August, 1998, and had been used for the Initial Design
Review of the joint US-French Mars Sample Return mission. The Initial
Design used a simple ballistic capsule to return the Martian samples to
Earth, with a landing to be made in Utah.  It was felt that using a
parachute would actually increase the chances of failure of the
capsule, and that aerobraking alone would be a better way of decreasing
the capsule's velocity at impact.

Rummel expressed irritation at the murmurs of attack on this Initial
Design, as the Preliminary Design for the Mars Sample Return Mission
will not be even go up for review until June of this year. I need here
to make my own bias clear: Personally, my own estimate of the existence
of Martian extremophiles is "I don't know". Given that "I don't know",
it would seem to me that the prudent course of action would be the same
as for a chance encounter in a bar: Take precautions. Minimally I'd
like to see a parachute added to the ballistic capsule: if the
parachute failed, the return capsule's ballistic capabilities would
be intact.  Even better would be the ballistic capsule, plus parachute,
plus aerobraking and initial examination on the International Space
Station: triple redundancy.  One could think of this as a couple of
dates first, if one were so inclined.

I asked Rummel a series of questions about NASA co-ordination with
other US agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the
National Institute of Health (NIH), the Army Biological and Chemical
Warfare Command (ABCWC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  I
was very surprised to learn that in NASA's opinion the only US
governmental agency with any oversight would be the US Department of
Agriculture, as in NASA's view the CDC and NIH only had jurisdiction in
the case of known organisms, and anything that might arrive in the Mars
Sample Return would certainly be unknown.

I do not know whether this view of roles and jurisdictions is held by
the other US agencies themselves.  Rummel has scheduled a meeting with
representatives from these agencies for April, to discuss the formation
of a joint committee, as well as the powers and tasks that this
committee will assume, so these other agencies' own views of their
roles and jurisdictions will probably be clear shortly thereafter. One
major problem is that the Preliminary Design Review for the Mars Sample
Return mission is to be held in June, and these agencies may feel that
NASA has given them too little time to prepare for this.

Rummel stated that NASA did not intended to involve the Army Biological
and Chemical Warfare Command, but instead would rely upon the CDC for
these capabilities.  Once again public perceptions come into play, as
there was a popular movie some years back called "The Andromeda Stain".
In this movie a fictional Army program to capture space organisms and
return them to Earth for weapons use went awry and ended up killing a
small town before escaping into the general environment in a surprise
ending.  Factually, the CDC does not have the same field handling
capabilities as the ABCWC.

As for foreign review processes, these were still unclear. Rummel
thought that the Acadamie would be involved as well as CNES. I did not
ask him whether ESA might have any role.

The interview continued with the question on the number of samples that
Rummel would feel comfortable with before men landed, which was touched
on above.  Rummel thought that three samples would be necessary: two
samples could be connected by a straight line.  When I expressed my
doubts as to NASA's capabilities with long range rovers, Rummel
expressed his satisfaction with the Altacama desert experiments and
Dave Lavery's management of NASA's robot research programs.

Once again certain feelings of irony intrude. The Altacama desert rover
relied on a Russian artificially intelligent autonomous robotic vision
system. Many years ago I spent about a year and half of my life trying
to bring the Space Research Institutes robotic vision team out of the
Soviet Union before its collapse.  When I took the team's head to
Lavery we were informed that all his moneys were committed for several
years to come.  To my knowledge the only reason that the Altacama
experiments took place at all were because of the incredible efforts by
Lou Friedman of the Planetary Society to see that this technology was
not lost. And during all this time NASA carried on about teleoperated
robots, ignoring the fact that the signal travel times from Mars and
back made telerobotic operations there useless.  Even after the problems
that Pathfinder hit trying to use teleoperations and virtual reality to
control the Sojourner rover over a limited range, NASA went on.

It finally took the astronauts telling NASA management in very direct
terms that they would simply be too exhausted by the prolonged exposure
to micro-gravity during the flight to Mars to control a landing there
before NASA finally acted. While I welcome Goldin's emphasis in his
2000 Budget briefing on robots who feel, and his unveiling of a
proposal for the 2003 deployment of an autonomous aircraft for the
exploration of Mars, from my point of view this is  about 9 years too
late.  If only Lavery had provided funding; if only NASA had had its
small business programs in place then; if only the United States had
had any industrial robot manufacturers at all; ah then, if only, the
sound of the surf breaking on the sandy shores of Crete would not be so

I followed up with the question about 2 more missions before 2010, and
got the confirmation of the manned program mentioned at the outset.
I then asked Rummel if they had given any thought as to what they would
do if an astronaut were to become contaminated, and he said that they
hadn't figured out their policy on that yet.  Apparently, it has not
dawned on anyone at NASA that in that case NASA would be dealing with a
known organism, and that the jurisdiction of the CDC and NIH would then
kick into place: It would not be NASA's call.

With that I thanked Rummel and wished him the best of luck,
sympathizing with him about what is going to be a couple of frantic
months.  Rummel pointed out to me that its going to be more like a
couple of frantic years.  I agreed with him whole-heartedly on that and

Benny, I have written to you before about my reluctance to report on
this topic, and let me now go into these reasons in a little more
detail. The people in the western States are particularly sensitive
about threats to their environment, and mention should be made here of
yet another movie.  This movie, "Rage", starred George C. Scott as a
farmer who takes down his rifle and goes on a rampage after his son is
killed by an accidental release of pathogens during an Army weapons
test. The movie was made in the very early 1970's, before the
conventions against biological weapons had kicked in, and was based
upon an actual accidental release by the Army.  While the movie did not
do all that well nationally, it made a whole lot of money in selected
western markets.

As it currently sits, NASA intends to ballistically land a capsule
carrying samples from Mars in Utah. The sides are already starting to
form up: the space enthusiasts for Mars at any risk; those outraged by
the current design.

While I know that some of the Conference members will be directly
involved as participants in this debate, as this confrontation blows up
publicly, the Conference may become too heated, and work on the more
serious problem of impact events may suffer.  And given the lack of
hard data, a lot of this debate will essentially be a useless exchange
of hypothesis.  Further, neither side in it seems to be considering
that any sample return plans and operations will of course be modified
by NASA depending on what is actually found on Mars first by the
landers and later the rovers.

When I wished Rummel the best of luck I meant it.  He is not only going
to be facing Representatives and Senators from Utah, he is going to be
facing the general public out there as well. There is going to be
tremendous pressure exerted on Rummel by the space enthusiasts as well
as by that part of NASA involved in the manned Mars mission for him to
always find in their favor. He is going to need the courage,
instantaneous wit, and sure judgement of a launch control officer if he
is going to get through it: The ability to push the button and shut it
down, manned or not, if conditions make it necessary, regardless of any
other factors.

I have no expertise in this area, and I have already shared with the
Conference members what I learned about this topic from the Russians.
My advice to anyone involved directly with this is simply to design
your missions so that they will be successful no matter what conditions
are encountered, and I really have nothing more to add to that. As for
whoever succeeds me in following this matter for the Conference, I
simply suggest that if they interview Rummel at any public event in the
western part of the country, they stand to the crowd side and at least
3 feet away.

All the best


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