As NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, James “Nick” Benardini knows his role is all about the community: his NASA discipline colleagues, agency programs and projects, the international community, and academia.
“My main role is connecting the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance’s Planetary Protection program to our partners — interfacing within NASA for projects and missions, as well as interfacing with our international and interagency stakeholders to make sure we move forward in protection for the agency,” said Benardini. “Overall, the passion for me in this job is understanding if there is life on other planets. Being able to have such a role in bringing samples back from Mars and being able to explore outer planets and helping with architecting our crewed missions to Mars while still meeting the intent of Planetary Protection, these are really the exciting science-driving mission objectives. It’s not a single person. It’s not a single person or agency. It’s a world effort. We’re not only working within an agency but interacting with our international counterparts to ensure Planetary Protection success. It really is a world problem to get humans to Mars and be able to explore. The sheer challenge and science reward that we have as a result of that is very inspiring.”
With NASA, industry and the world actively looking to return to the Moon and explore farther than ever before, ensuring proper policies, both at the agency and international level, is essential to protecting the Earth and other bodies from contamination.
“In the short term, we have a lot of streamlining to do for the Space Operation Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Develop Mission Directorate side of the house, shoring up policies and requirements and streamlining documentation and reporting requirements,” said Benardini. “Another short-term thing is making sure we get the Mars Sample Return campaign off on good footing in passing their design reviews and to a common place of understanding with Planetary Protection requirements and the associated implementation for those requirements that really meets stakeholder expectation.”
As the most direct stakeholders, the needs of programs and projects are at the forefront of these policies.
“Our new standards and NPR [NASA Procedural Requirements] objectives that we’re working toward are very much process and project enabling,” said Benardini. “We recognize there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach and we’re trying to really recreate an environment in which we encourage that openness and transparency with projects to work together towards a streamlined solution. Change is occurring. We’re here to help missions add benefit, just as other disciplines would, and ultimately, we want to enable missions and contribute to the success of the science for the agency.”
Looking further ahead, Benardini still sees a focus on policies, just with a broader scope of application: internationally.
“Long-term, the biggest thing is the Committee of Space Research policy,” he said. “We have an opportunity to really make a difference, to be able to leverage our recent policy lessons to help apply those as a critical perspective in developing a new international standard. We want continued transparency of all our Planetary Protection policies and practices and look forward to there being industry standards to point to so we, as an agency, aren’t reinventing the wheel. We can work together to help better what we’re doing.”
One of the biggest challenges with Planetary Protection, both policy and implementation, is that the discipline is constantly evolving based on science and Risk-Informed Decision-Making. Partners, whether they be programs and projects or international organizations, will need to work with Benardini and his team to navigate the changes together to ensure proper implementation is balanced with mission needs.
“We may not have all the answers today but were always trying to better ourselves, our policies, our practices to meet the intent of our requirements and strike a balance,” he explained. “We’re still really at that crossroads where we’ve shown in good faith [to programs and projects] that were updating our policies and standards and change is happening, but that’s a continued effort, especially as we’re updating human space and international policies and guidebooks too. I think one of the key things we need from other stakeholders is open mindedness and a willingness to change as we change. This isn’t the Planetary Protection of the past — we are doing things differently. We have a different approach and philosophy. Just because we did it this way five years ago doesn’t mean it’s how we’re doing it now. People are still building up that trust to the new way Planetary Protection is doing things, so continued openness and willingness to help understand new ways of business and so on will be key.”
While NASA’s programs and projects will need to learn these new ways of doing business with regards to Planetary Protection requirements, the Planetary Protection program will need to work to fill in technical gaps as the agency takes on unprecedented missions. This too will be a collaboration between the Planetary Protection program and programs and projects.
“At least from a crewed perspective, there are a lot of technical gaps we’ll need to fill, and we continue to identify gaps,” said Benardini. “There’s still a lot of work to go as we start to pave the way to humans on Mars — we’ve never done that, it’s a new precedent, so we’ll need that continued support to help with managing those knowledge gaps, including management support, engineering support and of course funding support. The rubber is hitting the road; it’s time to get it done and we need that collective agency support to do that. We’ve done a lot of work over the past decade in identifying these gaps, hosting workshops to better understand and project the knowledge gaps, and developing an agencywide roadmap to address these Planetary Protection technology gaps within the standard mission planning cycles and have embarked on research calls and engineering efforts to start to close these gaps.”
Benardini puts his trust in his team and the broader NASA community to properly address those gaps.
“My style is trusting those around you on your staff to be able to do the work and to have openness so that they come to you if there are problems,” he said. “It’s the opposite of micromanaging. It’s just really having an open, trusting, forward-looking style that promotes the team’s ability to work and move the discipline forward.”