It’s No Joke. NASA Needs Someone to Stop Us Polluting Outer Space

Last week it was reported that on August 14 NASA will begin accepting applications to become its new “Planetary Protection Officer.”

The job post, which notes a cushy six-figure salary, immediately kicked off a spate of sensational headlines, though the position’s actual responsibilities mostly consist of preventing the transfer of microorganisms from Earth to other planets and vice versa to prevent biological contamination during space missions.  

For some, the discovery that, rather than activating cosmic shields to defend against alien invasions, the Planetary Protection Officer will more likely be focusing on keeping spacecrafts spotlessly clean, might seem disappointing. It’s actually refreshing.

In an article in New York magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” journalist David Wallace-Wells prophesizes a litany of potential global warming disasters, including lethal heat waves, global drought, and perpetual war.

Other oft-predicted doomsday scenarios have involved nuclear holocausts, genetically-engineered diseases and, in a particularly sci-fi-oriented example, machine uprisings.

What all of the above scenarios have in common is their roots in human innovation and adventurism.

GettyImages-548979711 American astronaut Joseph Tanner during a space walk as part of the STS-115 mission to the International Space Station, September 2006. NASA

Indeed, while our species may not actually bring about the Apocalypse, it’s hard to claim humanity’s ambition has ever been tempered by an abundance of caution.

From land explorations to military conflicts to science and technology, our history has generally been long on hubris and short on humility. In some cases, the dangers were not even foreseeable.

Could the pioneering inventors and engineers of the Industrial Revolution, for instance, ever have imagined the potentially catastrophic effects that oil, coal and gasoline would have on the environment?

Today, as we continue to make ever greater strides in technological innovation, even some prominent tech leaders have expressed reservations. Tesla’s Elon Musk, for example, has repeatedly warned of the “existential threat” posed by artificial intelligence, likening A.I. to a demon being summoned by a “guy with a pentagram” who inevitably won’t be able to control it.

In Silicon Valley, his concerns have mostly fallen on deaf ears, though the notion that our technology is outpacing our abilities to contend with it is hardly new. Biologist E.O. Wilson perhaps put it best when he described the essential human problem as follows: “W e have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Meanwhile, Musk’s anxieties have fueled his mission to colonize Mars via his aerospace corporation, SpaceX, in the hopes that humanity may eventually become, in his words, a “multi-planetary species.”

Stephen Hawking, fearful Earth is on its way to becoming uninhabitable, also urges space colonization as a means for long-term survival. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, is confident this planet will always remain our home, but is convinced that colonizing space (including the moon) will enable our continued existence here. He aims for his own spaceflight company, Blue Origin, to be part of that process.

If a new Space Age is indeed upon us, it is essential that this new frontier be one area in which human beings know our proverbial place.  

In this context, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer emerges as an unlikely hero and an important example for private spaceflight companies like Musk’s and Bezos’s to follow.

In contrast to the fifteenth century European colonialists who visited disease and destruction upon the Americas, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer represents a careful and considerate explorer, intrepid in all the right ways, for all the right reasons.

Of course it can be argued that protecting planets from microscopic organisms is trivial stuff in comparison to close encounters with intelligent extraterrestrial beings. That is correct, and precisely what makes the task so important. It is undoubtedly in the care and concern over the minutia of interplanetary exploration that we set the tone for the entire enterprise.

Our relationship to space is unpredictable and still in its infancy, and an emphasis on responsibility, especially at this stage, is paramount. In that light, the Planetary Protection Officer is no less important than the title implies.

This summer saw the fourth hottest June in record-keeping history. In mid-July, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from Antarctica.

If, as many people fear, we’ve already damaged this world irrecoverably, it’s not too late to be more responsible with others.  

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), a science fiction novel about interplanetary conflict.

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