Archive for January, 2019

The Prime Directive

If you are a fan of the television and movie Star Trek series, and dating from the earliest series of programs which are usually called “Star Trek, The Original Series,” then you are doubtlessly familiar with the concept of the “Prime Directive.”  That was an order that took the form of an unalterable and non-revocable mandate from the fictional quasi-military group that ran space exploration and defense on the show, Starfleet, that no Starfleet space ship or its crew was to ever interfere in the development of life on any other planet or moon or asteroid or whatnot out there.  It was a court-martial offense and carried a severe penalty.  (Death?)  In other words, leave things alone.  During the series, several Starfleet officers ran afoul of the Directive and had to answer for their indiscretion.

Now, I suppose the concept of such a broad, overreaching regulation must have been derived from a desire in the mind of the creators of the Star Trek universe that in the future of real spaceflight, humans should not alter or change the natural progress of life-form development anywhere in the expanding universe.  It’s a noble concept and far-reaching in its enforcement, though it was used as much as a dramatic prop to enhance tension and conflict in the show as it was to provide a broad definition and desire of things to come.

Star Trek was fiction, of course, but I find myself wondering if we need a “Prime Directive” today.  In the Star Trek universe, spaceships could travel almost anywhere, and meeting new life forms and even well-developed civilizations was an everyday occurrence.  (I noticed that if the crew of a Starfleet vessel met a highly developed civilization, the Prime Directive didn’t seem to apply in reverse.  Let Starfleet get as much information as it could from other highly-developed civilizations.)  So, I ask the question, do we on Earth in our present-day infant-like crude, rocket-powered spaceships that have gotten us only into orbit and to the moon, really need a form of the “Prime Directive,” or is it too early in our space program to even worry about that?

I say we do.  We do need some sort of general, overall “directive” in our space research.  Granted, we’re not likely to meet the Klingons or the Romulans any time soon, but we do send out non-crewed probes to regions which crewed spacecraft cannot yet penetrate.  We’ve already landed on the moon, and humans will touch down on Mars within the next few years, that is almost certain.  We’ve put non-crewed spacecraft on Venus and a couple of asteroids and a comet.  So what?  What is the danger in doing that?

The danger is that we will leave something behind that has the potential to interfere with the natural development of life on those worlds and even more.  That “thing” is nucleic acids, both DNA and RNA.  It’s too late for the moon and Mars and the others, they’re already contaminated, but it’s not too late for other heavenly bodies.  We’re looking at Callisto and Europa, moons of Jupiter, as possible incubators of life, and even thinking of sending a probe to land on them and take a sample.  But we need to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to clean something so immaculate that all DNA and RNA are removed.  I’m talking every last molecule of DNA or RNA.  Sterilization may inactivate any living organism, but there’s no guarantee that it will eliminate ALL DNA and RNA too.  I’ve worked with DNA and RNA, and they’re everywhere, in bacteria and fungi and viruses, in human secretions such as sweat and saliva.  I maintain it’s virtually impossible to assure that a spacecraft will be totally nucleic acid free when it touches down on a new planet or moon.  And that’s the only thing it could ever be if we want to land on virgin planets.  The best thing to do in this situation is to stay away.  Totally.  Permanently.  Forever.  And we need a “Prime Directive” as a part of our space program to help enforce that concept.  Even the slightest amount of DNA or RNA could alter the development of life on a virgin planet for all time to come.  Or even start life development in a strange direction on a totally sterile planet.  The creators of Star Trek had it right.  We should not live up to that as our ultimate potential.

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