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These comments (1, 2) under @SpaceLawyer's answer to If Elon Musk wanted to bring back some Martian soil, would US permission be required? in Space Exploration SE say:

Let's not feel quickly relieved by the "details" of the planetary protection process described above. Here is a good complementary read Planetary Protection in the Space Era: Science and Governance. Extract:"As COSPAR is an independent organization without any legal mandate, the Planetary Protection Policy is an example of so-called “soft law” or a non-binding international instrument, in short, no one is under any legal obligation to comply with them".

and

Another good read How SCIENTISTS prevent Earth's microbes from contaminating other planets. Extract:"Attempts in the US Congress to potentially exempt private actors from planetary protection requirements have already happened, as part of a bill in 2018 to reduce the “regulatory burden” on the commercial space industry. The efforts failed, but those who supported it may try again."

Related in Space SE: What precautions are planned to prevent samples returned from Mars crashing and releasing organisms on Earth? which shows that "stuff happens".

Genesis crash site scenery

above: Genesis crash site scenery

The Genesis sample return capsule on the ground in Utah. The impact occurred near Granite Peak on a remote portion of the Utah Test and Training Range. No people or structures were anywhere near the area.

Question: Is there political activity in the US for regulation or banning of potentially biologically active samples from space to Earth? Who is doing so? Is there pending legislation? Are there any political actors who are blocking this?

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    Isn't this already covered by regular customs rules? Or does that only apply to people? The Apollo astronauts had to fill out customs forms, they seemed to have gotten away with a 'to be determined' in response to the 'conditions on board which may lead to the spread of disease' question.
    – JJJ
    Jul 23, 2021 at 1:57
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    @JJJ things have changed in a half-century, for one there is now going to be a lot of completely private spaceflight, some of it US-based but launched outside the US even. Historically NASA has abided by a lot of self-imposed restrictions that were not necessarily legislated in any clear way. In this new era of breakdown of behavioral norms, the need for explicit laws is ever-more apparent.
    – uhoh
    Jul 23, 2021 at 2:02

1 Answer 1

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+100

So, first off, the existing law about space isn't something that the U.S. has unilateral jurisdiction over, having been placed into a quasi "international waters" classification by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Private exploitation of space objects is precluded by Article I thereof, which holds that any resource exploitation or study of any space object must be "for the good of all mankind," which private, for-profit entities are basically automatically disqualified for unless acting under contract to another actor - i.e. a signatory State.

Article IX covers the possibility of contamination, and any State (global sense, not - e.g. - Massachusetts), may raise objections and insist on being allowed to consult on the proposed mission. But it requires that the signatory nation (presumably through their department of state) raises the objection to the operation.

For Space X, or Elon Musk, to act unilaterally in space as a U.S. Citizen, without authorization of the U.S. Government, they probably run the risk of violating the Hatch Act which (among other things) makes it illegal for a U.S. citizen to act like they have diplomatic authority to confer with other nations. The Outer Space Treaty also requires signatory governments to directly monitor the actions of private companies in space - so the legal authority for Space X or Elon Musk to unilaterally perform a sample return mission is in doubt.

Obviously there's nothing physically stopping someone from triggering judicial review of all this, but until the threat of such is a lot nearer, this isn't an area that sees much of the kind of activity being asked about, because a credible threat of this happening has yet to materialize. Serious political actions are almost always reactionary in nature - so this answer may change once there's been a credible threat that Musk might even be capable of such.

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  • The ESA + NASA plan to bring of order 40 different samples that the Perseverance rover is already in the process of caching to Earth is real. My mention of Elon Musk is only to point to some comments with context.
    – uhoh
    Dec 19, 2021 at 19:27
  • Whenever a spacecraft launches with an RTG there are protests and calls to stop it though there's never been a radiation incident as a result of a failed launch. But for some reason unlike the fear of small amounts of encapsulated radioactivity there is not yet any public concern, even during a pandemic, about potential organisms being brought back from another planet? Proving a negative is always a challenge, but I've never heard of one and it seems you must have done at least a cursory check as well.
    – uhoh
    Dec 19, 2021 at 19:30

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