NASA wants YOU to protect the planet

recently posted a listing on the federal government’s job site seeking what it calls a “Planetary Protection Officer” who would “…Lead[s] planning and coordination of activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs.” So, of course today’s news coverage makes it look like NASA is seeking the next Star-Lord.

For example, the chattering heads on “Good Morning America” made it seem like NASA wants to hire an army of new Men in Black to protect us from alien invaders. Ahem, not exactly…

While the job’s title and description sound like a fit for Han Solo or a Guardian of the Galaxy, the actual aim of a Planetary Protection Officer, says NASA, is to help the space agency avoid organic and biological contamination during the conduct of human and robotic space exploration.

In the job listing, NASA explains that it “maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all space flight missions that may intentionally or unintentionally carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft, which are intended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration.”

NASA has an actual Office of Planetary Protection (motto: “all of the planets, all of the time”); its stated mission: “Preserving our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states; avoiding the biological contamination of explored environments that may obscure our ability to find life elsewhere – if it exists; and to ensure that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case life does exist elsewhere.”

The office is charged with ensuring that the United States complies with Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty – ratified by the United Nations in 1967 – which specifies that planetary exploration should be carried out in a way that avoids contamination of the bodies Earthlings are exploring throughout the solar system, and that avoids any adverse effects to Earth if materials are brought back from outer space.

What kind of background does a Planetary Protection Officer need? The first requirement in the government listing is “broad engineering expertise … Must be a recognized subject matter expert [and] possess advanced knowledge of Planetary Protection, its requirements and mission categories.” The posting also noted that the ideal candidate would possess a degree in physical science and/or related engineering science such as mechanics, dynamics, properties of materials, and electronics.

So all you potential planetary-protection job seekers enthused about your high score of 9,990 points in Space Invaders, sorry – unless you also have a degree in math or biology and have or can obtain a “Secret”-level security clearance.

The third bullet in the “Technical Qualifications” portion of NASA’s listing is: “Demonstrated skills in diplomacy that resulted in win-win solutions during extremely difficult and complex multilateral discussions. This includes building coalitions amongst organizations to achieve common goals.” Translation? “You must be diplomatic yet firm when you have to tell a bunch of engineers that the space probe they’ve spent years building, launching, and monitoring will need to be allowed to disintegrate in space because it’s in jeopardy of crash-landing on an exomoon and possibly contaminating that alien world with Earth microbes.”

In fact, that very scenario is imminent for NASA’s Cassini probe, which has spent 19 years traveling to, orbiting, and studying Saturn and its moons: The orbiter is planned to be intentionally destroyed by diving into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017. This directed deorbit is necessary to mitigate the risk of the spacecraft eventually colliding with and contaminating one of Saturn’s moons.

It wouldn’t be surprising if NASA’s current Planetary Protection Officer, Dr. Catharine A. Conley, needed to use every bit of her scientific and diplomatic skill to break it to the Cassini team – gently – that their hardy, long-lived spacecraft needs to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid any chance of it contaminating the distant planet or its moons.

The pay for this full-time position is listed at between $124,406 and $187,000 per year, with an initial appointment for three years plus a possible two-year extension.

Job seekers, not potential superheroes, can view the listing at https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/474414000 . Serious applicants only – I can only imagine the huge volume of resumes that poor NASA human-resources director is going to get from those wanting the coolest job title on Earth.

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