Although this job position is not new at NASA, it is also not something that the public is very familiar with. The job entails the protection of Earth from alien invasion but also the protection of other planets from human influence.
What exactly does all that mean? Catharine Conley, the NASA scientist who was filling up this position for the past three years has boldly revealed what are her responsibilities as the Planetary Protection Officer and how far reaching is her job. In 2014 she said that the main goal of her job is to make sure that NASA’s activities on the planet and off of it are in compliance with the international treaty that is 50 years old, which sets the standards in regards to prevention of biological contamination outside of our planet and the protection of our biosphere from any alien life forms.
She also commented on the Mars missions and what NASA did to make sure that the Mars surface remains completely uncontaminated. She commented that “the landers were packaged and put inside a bioshield and baked in an oven to kill all organisms — a ‘full-system sterilization,’ we call it. … We needed to protect the life-detection instruments and protect the Mars environment in case it turned out to be habitable to Earth life.”
This was back in the 70’s, but we have the same goals and worries today. The rovers on Mars which are sent to gather images and analyze the data that is sent back on Earth, are operating where we believe that water once existed. We are learning more and more about the red planet’s evolution and progress, but at the same time, the same is happening with our responsibilities and questions regarding the safety procedures for people that are going to be sent to Mars in the following years.
In her 2014 interview Conley contemplated about this: “Will the humans be alive by the time they get to Mars? If they die on Mars, are they then contaminating the surface? That could interfere with future research’’.
Although she did not disclose if she will be reapplying for the job, it is certain that the planetary protection officer will be crucial for space exploration.