Are you a planet protector?

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We all have our embarrassing secrets. So with deep breath and thick skin I reveal mine: I’m a closet Trekkie.

Yup; alone with rare free time I binge on Star Trek. I don’t discriminate — TNG (the best, by far), Voyager, Deep Space 9, and for an occasional giggle, the original. It’s comforting to escape to a society more compassionate, more competent, and less scary than our own.

(Phaser fire notwithstanding) I want our world to make it so.

But that’s irrelevant, a mere segue to the real news: NASA is serious about alien life. More than mere ravings from a Picard groupie; I have proof.

“Wanted: Planetary Protection Officer. Apply to NASA.”

No joke. If you’re an engineer, scientist, or mathematician seeking a six-figure job, hurry. The application period ends Aug. 14. But first, a little background about the Planetary Protection Office, or PPO, whose motto is, “All of the planets, all of the time.”

Beam me back, Scottie.

In 1956, more than a decade before Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, “concerns about lunar and planetary contamination” were raised at the International Astronautical Federation Congress in Rome. A year later the USSR launched the first satellite. A year after that, COSPAR — an international committee on space research — was formed to promote international scientific research and exchange, still headquartered in California. In 1964, COSPAR released the first set of planetary protection objectives and protocols, and in 1967, the international Outer Space Treaty was signed to ensure, among other things, the peaceful use of outer space.

In hope that we all may live long and prosper.

Since then the PPO has worked with NASA mission planners on missions to Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Pluto, among others. Their function is to protect all planets, not only our own, from biological contamination and harm. The PPO officer’s job includes writing Environmental Impact Statements for NASA missions. That includes the condition of the spacecraft, what it brings and what it picks up — kind of like keeping mussels and milfoil off boats.

And yes, PPO’s official objectives include precautions to protect Earth “in case life exists elsewhere.” For years NASA worked with SETI Institute — the search for extra-terrestrial life — to find it, until Congress canceled the program in the 1990s.

Maybe we Trekkies aren’t so crazy after all. As Stanford researcher and SETI astrobiologist Margaret Race put it:

“I think it’s important to convince people that it’s not frivolous to think about these topics. It’s different than thinking about little green men. What we’ve learned about astrobiology, extremophile biology, and habitability has given us a lot of information about how human beings work, how ecological systems work, and how our planet works.”

And one day, how to boldly go where no one has gone before.

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist with the Hagadone News Network who wasn’t smart enough to become the astrophysicist of her fantasies. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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