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I hear NASA calling me to protect our planet


NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has an opening for a Planetary Protection Officer.

NASA maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all space flight missions that may carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft intended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets.

This NASA policy is based on federal requirements and existing international treaties and agreements. The Planetary Protection Officer is responsible for leading NASA’s planetary protection capability, maintenance of planetary protection policies and oversight of its implementation by NASA’s space flight missions.

I’m going to apply.

I know, I know … I may not have the necessary degree(s) or experience, but I definitely have more-than-ample enthusiasm. Trips to Mars are streaking toward reality, and I want to go. If the Air Force Academy had been accepting female cadets when I went to college, I would have endured a military academy—I’m not much on rules—to build the foundation for a career as an astronaut. And if I had any credentials at all, I would be standing outside of the International Space Station program and pounding on the door.

So, I’m thinking Planetary Protection Officer might be just the ticket.

What will I be doing? For one, as noted in the job description, I’ll work with our space missions to make sure that any samples or miscellaneous materials, such as planetary surfaces that might cling to our crafts, are not bringing harmful elements, or even organic matter, back to Earth.

Setting theology aside for a moment, it’s breathtaking to consider that there might be life elsewhere in the universe, life of any kind botanical, marine, animal or of a kind we currently can’t even fathom. And since the advent of film, the movies have portrayed the (usually dire) results of human life colliding with these extraterrestrials.

Hence, planetary protection for Earth.

On the flip side, of course, is planetary protection for the celestial bodies we touch, such as humans bouncing around on the moon and rover vehicles on Mars. If we allow for the possibility that there are life forms we don’t know of or about, then we need plans to protect them as well.

All this intrigues me: How do we protect—and protect against—what we don’t know exists? How do we know what we are bringing back and what we are leaving behind?

As your Planetary Protection Officer, I will be tirelessly investigating these issues. And I will also apply lessons from our Earthly history to this task.

Preserve polar caps or any ice landscapes? Check. Minimize pollutants in the air and waterways? Check. Respect forestation, wildlife and marine habitats, and sacred and archeological sites? Check.

To do my job properly, I’ll need the cooperation of, well, the entire planet. Given that my employer, NASA, is an American government entity, I like to hope that the U.S. will lead the way in long-term preservation and protection strategies. But with the current rollback of environmental regulations to score short-term points, my job as Planetary Protection Officer may be more to protect Earth from her current residents than from any interplanetary invaders.

Andrea Doray is a writer who wants to report back from somewhere “out there.” Contact her at a.doray@andreadoray.com.


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