Protect the Planet!

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s personal traits – only occasionally noted – is that he is a mysophobe: that is, he is afraid of catching germs from other people, and thus doesn’t like to shake hands, probably keeps tubs of hand-cleaner all around the Oval Office, etc. I don’t know whether that is a good or bad thing, or even something particularly strange; what I do know, having had it just pointed out to me by the Dutch national news service, the NOS, is that for the right person this trait could turn out to be lucrative.

“NASA is looking for someone (male/female) to protect the Earth against other-worldly life” that tweet reads. Note well: We’re not talking here about the macro level (so no need to pass along word to Ironman, say, if you happen to be acquainted, that an alien-invader fighter is wanted), but rather the micro level. Yes, even though the official notice (which you can read in English here) lists “Planetary Protection Officer” as the job-title.

Stated simply, bringing back microbes from, say, Mars to the Earth could cause all sorts of serious problems. (Ask any immunologist for help if your own imagination is not up to the task of figuring out what this is all about.) But it goes the other way, too: It won’t do to bring any sort of harmful Earth-based microbes to places we explore (like, uh, Mars, or our Moon), for at least two reasons:

  1. Since 1967 there has been the Outer Space Treaty forbidding that (as well as the contamination of Earth by foreign microbes already mentioned, of course); and
  2. At a lower level of concern, it just wouldn’t do to unknowingly bring along some Earth microbe to another planetary body, then “discover” it there, believe it to be something new and remarkable because of the context in which you think you have “discovered” it, and then ultimately be embarrassed when the truth is discovered.

This all sounds very reasonable and necessary – but also difficult to master! How can one know for sure that no such microbes are being transferred, in either direction? It must require a lot of training, a lot of smarts. But if you are up to that, it’s well-rewarded: That job announcement lists a salary of between $124,406 [sic] to $187,000 per year, on a three-year contract (renewable).

Fortunately as well, even as the NOS picked up this job announcement from the site, it also took the trouble to unearth an OCT 2015 article from the New York Times about NASA’s current Planetary Protection Officer, Dr. Catharine A. Conley.

Those of you interested in looking into this opportunity further can simply head on to there. (Note: There is no indication that whoever NASA hires would necessarily be replacing Dr. Conley.) Careful, though: As the NOS piece points out, this is a NASA appointment and therefore for US citizens only. (No doubt you would also have to gain a pretty high security clearance as well.) Then again, as it goes on to observe, the European Space Agency has a similar position, although there are no apparent openings there at present.

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