How NASA Prevents Outbreaks in Space4 min read

Space travel has once again captured the imagination of the public. With recent stunts like Elon Musk launching a rocket with a Tesla Roadster attached to it, general discourse has begun to ask about the possibilities of space travel. On the other hand, it has also revived some old, justifiable fears.

There are some serious potential risks when it comes to outbreaks in space, both in the form of disease outbreaks and, potentially, in keeping living samples contained. If you think leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and launching yourself thousands of miles away from civilization is distressing, imagine doing so while you’re sick. Preventing the spread of disease or viral infections is a serious concern, as demonstrated way back in the Apollo program in the 60s; over half of flight crew members reported inflight or pre-flight illnesses.

In fact, the mental and physical stresses of space travel make crewmembers highly susceptible to sickness. There a mental tax associated with the knowledge that something could go wrong during launch or the overall mission. This susceptibility is also partially due to health risks associated with living in a zero-gravity environment, such as reduced muscle and bone mass — symptoms commonly associated with physical inactivity.

Because personnel are forced to work together in a small, closed environment, where bacteria can grow and become unavoidable, contamination control is essential. If a serious disease outbreak were to occur, such individuals would have no practical way to quarantine the area. The solution? Thorough and stringent sterilization and cleaning protocols:

Before Liftoff

In order to protect astronauts, people on Earth, and the environments of other planets, certain individuals on spacecrafts need to take certain precautions. By assembling and storing spacecrafts in clean environments, with properly dressed personnel, NASA can avoid contamination concerns before liftoff.

NASA outlined their cleaning and sterilization protocols on the site for the Office of Planetary Protection (OPR), and these requirements include the use of cleanrooms. Cleanrooms must be used to control the bioburden (the amount of bacteria on an unsterilized surface) and contamination of spacecraft. As noted by Berkshire, there are many sources of cleanroom contamination, including personnel, objects, fluids, tools, equipment, and certain processes. Contaminants can include bacteria, dust, fungi, non-volatile residues, among many others.

With a proper control of airflow, temperature, humidity, and pressure, such risks can be avoided. These areas are kept clean in a variety of methods, including detergents and cleaning solvents. Surfaces are also kept sterile through certain procedures and cutting-edge technology. For instance, blue violet LED light fixtures will play an increasingly prominent role in cleanrooms in the years to come.

When strict standards are required for a mission, sterilization procedures may be carried out on spacecraft. This involves dry heat microbial reduction or, alternatively, vapor hydrogen peroxide. Once sterile, this equipment is stored and protected in ways that prevent recontamination. Microbial barriers are often draped over such equipment, and they are only retrieved on a strictly as-needed basis.

Personnel in such areas are expected to follow proper garmenting procedures, the specifics of which are based on the mission at hand. According to the OPR, garments can include “hoods, mask, surgical gloves, booties, and protective suits.”

Dealing With Foreign Contaminants

What about an outbreak of another variety — of a sample of extraterrestrial life? NASA assesses the catastrophic potential of each proposed space mission on a scale from one to five. A Category I mission, for instance, has practically no chance of contamination; a Category V mission, on the other hand, have a high chance of contamination. Any flight with the objective of carrying samples back to Earth is automatically considered to be a Category V mission.

These missions are classified as either “unrestricted” or “restricted.” The former consists of missions to areas that are deemed uninhabitable for life, while the latter consists of journeys to areas where personnel may encounter extraterrestrial life. Living samples must be immediately placed into strict containment or undergo sterilization. This designation is no laughing matter.

What if there was a contamination breach involving a sample? Mental images of Andromeda Strain-esque viruses or aliens in the vein of the one who boarded the USCSS Nostromo may come to mind, but readers can rest assured that such an outbreak would not lead to further contamination on Earth. As Gizmodo puts it, “This mission designation (a restricted Category V mission) means that NASA will gladly throw a multi-billion dollar spacecraft into the Sun rather than let it re-enter orbit if containment protocols have somehow been breached.” In short, the spacecraft wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter our atmosphere.


Avery Phillips

Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things nature, especially humans, and was driven to pursue an Anthropology degree due to her childhood love of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. Now she lovingly writes about all things great and small.

Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things nature, especially humans, and was driven to pursue an Anthropology degree due to her childhood love of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. Now she lovingly writes about all things great and small.

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