Good news for those of you who have dreamt for years — nay, decades — of growing up to become Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day: NASA is hiring a “Planetary Protection Officer” whose job duties ostensibly include protecting the Earth from alien life forms. What’s more, it’s a six-figure gig, so if you’re qualified, hie thee to USA Jobs to apply. I realize that taking a government-based science job might feel a little… uh… tenuous right now, given the current administration’s stance on science as a whole, but, I mean, “Planetary Protection Officer” is possibly the best job title ever, sooooo… yeah.
According to the job listing, the field of planetary protection in general is “concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration” — that is, preventing life forms and organic material from one planet contaminating another during the process of space travel and exploration. The specific position of Planetary Protection Officer itself falls under the government agency known as the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for Planetary Protection. As PPO, you would be “responsible for the leadership of NASA’s planetary protection capability, maintenance of planetary protection policies, and oversight of their implementation by NASA’s space flight missions.”
The qualifications, though, are pretty specific. In addition to “broad engineering expertise, at least one year of which is in positions at or comparable to the GS-15 level,” you need to have the following (calling all STEM folk):
- “Advanced knowledge of Planetary Protection”;
- “Demonstrated experience planning, executing, or overseeing elements of space programs of national significance”;
- “Demonstrated skills in diplomacy that resulted in win-win solutions during extremely difficult and complex multilateral discussions”;
- And a degree or equivalent education in physical science, engineering, or mathematics. An advanced degree is preferred, but you can getaway with a bachelor’s.
But despite the fact that most of the media coverage is focusing on the whole “PROTECT US FROM ALIENS” angle, it’s worth noting that not all of the position’s duties are aimed at preventing contamination from other planets arriving on Earth; in fact, NASA is actually more concerned about the possibility that Earth might contaminate other planets. The job description’s summary of the agency itself contains this very important sentence:
“NASA 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.”
That’s key. Alisdair Wilkins at Inverse explains why:
“If a NASA probe goes into space carrying microbes from Earth, it’s possible those tiny organisms could get mixed in with whatever it collects from, say, Mars or one of Saturn’s moons. Scientists could then later mistakenly identify those microbes as being from one of those other planets, making us think we found alien life. That would be one of the most monumental discoveries in all human history, so we really want to get it right the first time.”
Indeed, cross-planetary contamination is a big deal; as Scientific American reported earlier this year, it’s one of the major considerations going into current and future space exploration. Even so, besides the NASA job, there’s only one other full-time Planetary Protection Officer position in the world, according to Business Insider, making it a pretty rare job. (For the curious, it’s at the European Space Agency.)
That said, though, according to the Office of Planetary Protection’s website, “protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies” is also part of the field of planetary protection. You’ll want to temper your expectations, of course — by “possible life forms,” we’re really talking about cells, microbes, and other teeny tiny,not-visible-the-naked-eye forms of life, not Xenomorphs or what have you. Still, though: Alien life is alien life, even if it’s not sentient and/or dripping with ooze.
Also, I’d like to take this moment to note that the NASA Office of Planetary Protection’s website has a tagline, and that tagline is, “All of the planets, all of the time.” I kind of love that, but maybe that's just me.
Catharine Conley has been NASA’s PPO since 2014; my guess is that the opening is simply because her term is up. According to the job listing, agency policy has a time limit in place for it: “The initial appointment will be for three years, with the possibility of extending for an additional two years,” the description reads. Conley’s three years are about up, so it’s time to bring in some new blood. Hopefully it'll be more like this:
And less like this:
Want to apply? Head here. Good luck!