You know what? Maybe we ought to reconsider this whole thing about looking for life on other worlds. It would be nice to find it, of course. But that doesn’t mean we could handle it—biologically, epidemiologically and most important, emotionally.
We are currently in the midst of a global near-panic over what, in some respects, is its own alien, or at least previously unknown, life-form: the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. As of this writing, there have been close to 90,000 confirmed cases around the world, in 68 countries, leading to more than 3,000 deaths. Flights have been grounded, international business conventions canceled, the Tokyo Olympics are threatened, and a global recession looms. Last week in the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst week since the recession of 2008 and 2009, shedding a third of its gains since the 2016 election, most of that due to fears of the impact of COVID-19.
Humanity as a whole is suffering the effects of the disease but the Chinese are taking a particular kind of heat. The virus emerged in Wuhan, China and around the world, an ugly kind of pitchforks and torches behavior has surfaced. An Asian-American 16-year-old was assaulted at a California high school and accused of carrying the virus. In South Korea, latent anti-Chinese sentiment has surfaced, with shops reportedly posting signs reading “No Chinese.” In Vancouver, a Chinese boy on a school playground was taunted with cries of, “Yo, virus-boy! Don’t infect us!”
In a story in Arizona’s Cronkite News, affiliated with the local Public Broadcasting System, Wei Li, a professor of Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University, lamented the history of this kind of bias. “It was happening during SARS and people racialized Asian Americans and during Ebola with Africans and African Americans,” Li said. “People lump an entire group and blame them for contaminating our nation and people.”
COVID-19 is an entirely terrestrial problem, one that has not a lick to do with space, and yet consider that even as the virus rages, NASA is poised to launch a new rover to Mars in July that will look for microbial life and gather up some rock and soil samples, which will be brought back to Earth—potentially containing that microbial life—on a later mission. So: how do you think that’s going to work out?
On the one hand, there is almost no likelihood of any risk of contagion. As a column in Space.com pointed out last week, NASA has a long history of working to protect the Earth from biohazards from other planets and to protect other planets from biohazards from Earth. The space agency even has an entire division dedicated to that goal, formally known as the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA), but more commonly and descriptively known as the Planetary Protection Office.
As OSMA puts it, its mission is to “carefully control forward contamination of other worlds by organisms and organic materials carried by spacecraft” and to “rigorously preclude backward contamination of Earth by extraterrestrial life.” If you have any question about which of those mission statements is the more important one, just consider the difference between a promise to “carefully control” something and to “rigorously preclude” it.
NASA’s most extensive experience with the risk of backward contamination was during the Apollo era when both lunar samples and humans who had been on the moon came back to Earth. For the first three landings, no sooner had the crewmen opened their hatch after splashdown than frogmen handed them biohazard suits to wear for their trip back to the Naval recovery ship. From there they were flown to Houston, where they were kept in three weeks of isolation. The crews were—as might be expected after having visited an airless, waterless world—carrying no lunar pathogens at all, and the quarantine procedure was dropped for the last three lunar missions.
Mars will be a very different matter, because Mars, which was once awash with water, might once have been fairly churning with life too—and some of it may well linger in spots in which the water endures. As the Space.com piece points out, it is possible that Earthly life and potential Martian life are even related: Meteorites from Mars that struck Earth billions of years ago could well have harbored microorganisms that survived the journey within water-bearing pockets in the rocks, giving rise to life here. If that’s the case, not only have we found Martians, we are Martians. But any relationship between current Earthly and Martian life could increase the risk that Martian microbes find us hospitable hosts.
The odds of finding life on Mars are unknown and unknowable. The odds of being able to scoop it up and bring it back to Earth intact add a further degree of uncertainty. And the risk of a pathogen escaping and a pandemic ensuing, while not impossible, feels far more the stuff of a screenplay than a journal paper.
Still, the risk exists. Even in Level 4 labs—the strictest kind of bio-containment facilities—there is always a non-zero chance that something could escape. So, imagine it did and people did become infected. Put aside for a moment the impact on their health, would they not merely be racialized, but extraterrestrialized—as somehow not even fully human anymore?
The search for life on other worlds is a manifestation of our consuming interest in other living things and in some ways our love of other living things. The battle against SARS-CoV-2 is a mark of the unified face we can show when one of those living things threatens us all—a collectivism that is among our highest qualities. The racializing, the othering, directed at people of Chinese descent is a mark of one of our lowest.
A version of this article was originally published in TIME’s Space newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive these stories early.
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Contributor: Jeffrey Kluger