The survival of life of Earth (and elsewhere) may rest on the shoulders of NASA's next planetary protection officer – and they're taking applications.
The job posting has elicited headlines about how the space agency is seeking a person to defend our planet from aliens. But it's more concerned with microorganisms than little green men.
And while it's true that the role is trying to prevent Earth from being contaminated by extraterrestrial materials, say from samples collected on missions, the job is just as focused on preventing contamination from Earth on planets and moons that humans explore.
NPR's Ari Shapiro chatted about the job with someone who would know what it takes – former Planetary Protection Officer Michael Meyer. He's now the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.
As researchers explore places that could harbor life, "when you bring samples back there's the possibility that you're bringing something alive from another planet," Meyer says. "In which case, you ought to be cautious and keep those samples contained until you can determine whether or not there's anything perhaps hazardous in those samples."
He explains that "the very nature of the job is that you have to be conservative," because we may not know whether an extraterrestrial sample is dangerous or not.
By the same token, as scientists search for life, they don't want to confuse a stowaway microbe from Earth with a groundbreaking discovery of life on another planet.
That's why Meyer spent his time "making sure that the spacecraft going somewhere else was actually of a clean enough nature so that we're not worried about contaminating the planet that we're trying to explore."
He also points out a potentially unexpected set of skills that come in handy: diplomacy.
The planetary protection officer is "dealing with other countries that are also sending spacecraft to targets of opportunity such as Mars and [Jupiter's moon] Europa." The European Space Agency also has a similar role, but other countries with space programs do not.
"We're not in the business of telling other countries how to conduct their business but we do have to pay attention to what they're doing because when we're collaborating with them it's incumbent on us, on NASA, to make sure that they're exploring safely," Meyer added.
Not all missions require the same level of cleanliness, however. He explains that "planetary protection has a gradation of bodies of concern."
For example, sending a spacecraft to an asteroid that is not deemed to have potential for life requires a less conservative approach than sending a spacecraft to Mars. In places that could potentially support life, Meyer says, "we have to sterilize the spacecraft or sterilize the instruments that might touch that region."
Still interested in the job? Here are a few specifics. The application period closes on Aug. 14. It pays $126,406-$187,000 annually. You need a "broad engineering expertise" and must be a "recognized subject matter expert." And "demonstrated experience planning, executing, or overseeing elements of space programs of national significance" is also a must.
The job is open only to U.S. citizens and residents of American Samoa. It also explicitly mentions eligibility of the several dozen residents of Swains Island, a U.S.-administered island in the South Pacific.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's a job title it sounds like it could come out of a summer blockbuster film - planetary protection officer. NASA just posted a notice saying they're looking to hire a planetary protection officer. So before we submit our applications, we thought we'd better find out what the job entails. Dr. Michael Meyer is on the line. And can we say your title is former planetary protection officer?
MICHAEL MEYER: Well, that's correct.
SHAPIRO: Well, if I want to be a planetary protection officer, what am I going to have to do?
MEYER: So it's an interesting job in that - I mean besides having such a cool title, it actually has a fair amount of responsibility in protecting the Earth from extraterrestrial contamination from spacecraft exploration. And also, you want to protect the planets that you're exploring so that you can still do future science from other planetary bodies.
SHAPIRO: What are some places that Earth spacecraft are going that we could potentially contaminate?
MEYER: So certainly Mars has been on the list for quite some time because of its biological potential, and Europa is one of the next targets that we're looking at.
SHAPIRO: Europa is a moon of Jupiter.
MEYER: Europa is a moon of Jupiter. And - but other icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn are of concern.
SHAPIRO: What kinds of extraterrestrial contamination could actually harm the Earth?
MEYER: Well, so the idea is that if you're going to a place that has the potential for harboring life, when you bring samples back, there's the possibility that you're bringing something alive from another planet. And, in which case, you ought to be cautious and keep those samples contained until you can determine whether or not there's anything perhaps hazardous in those samples.
SHAPIRO: You're now in charge of the NASA Mars mission. Is the work that you did as a planetary protection officer informing the kinds of decisions you're making about a future mission to Mars?
MEYER: Well, certainly one of the reasons why I've become the, you know, lead scientist for the Mars program is in fact the potential for life on Mars. Or maybe at some point in time in the past it had that opportunity. And being clean with the spacecraft that you're using to explore Mars is extremely important because when you make your measurements, you want to make sure that what you're measuring is what's on Mars, not something that you brought with you.
SHAPIRO: So NASA is now taking applications for a planetary protection officer. What do you think the top qualifications should be?
MEYER: The qualifications for a planetary protection officer - well, they're in the ad, so whatever I say should not be taken by a potential applicant as the...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah, but you've done the job. You know the real qualifications required.
MEYER: So the challenges of the job are, one, you should have some background. Understand how you conduct business so that you can have clean spacecraft. How do you work in a clean room? How do you handle microbiology, dealing with culturing microorganisms and that sort of thing? But the other half of it is, in some ways, it has to be a very diplomatic job because you are dealing with other countries that are also sending spacecraft to...
SHAPIRO: Oh, because not every country has a planetary protection officer.
MEYER: Not every country has a planetary protection officer. In fact I think only ESA has a planetary protection officer besides NASA.
SHAPIRO: That's the European Space Agency, yeah.
SHAPIRO: So have you ever had to tell Russia or China that they can't send something into space that they want to send into space because it might contaminate a foreign planet?
MEYER: So we're not in the business of telling other countries how to conduct their business. But we do have to pay attention to what they're doing because when we're collaborating with them, it's incumbent on us, on NASA, to make sure they're exploring safely.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Michael Meyer, former planetary protection officer and now leading NASA's Mars mission, thanks for telling us about this really interesting job.
MEYER: Well, thank you so much.
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