Looking for the new Lt. Ripley?

Despite Randall Munroe’s What if? drawing, the PPO gets neither an official badge nor a nifty sword.

NASA this week posted a job opening for a Planetary Protection Officer, a title that requires the holder to “the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration.”  Organic?  Biological contamination?  In space!  Does this position sound tailor-made for Sigourney Weaver?

Actually, it is all about the tiny biota, bacteria and viruses, and mainly with keeping Earth organisms from hitching a ride and contaminating any extraterrestrial landscapes, thus making it harder to discover actual off-Earth life.

Dr. Conley has to protect Mars from Earthlings, so we can figure out if there are any Martians at all.
Photo credit: Paul E. Alers/NASA

Dr. Catherine “Cassie” Conley, the current PPO and 6th to hold the title, is happy for the exposure but not so thrilled with the association to hostile E.T.s and xenomorphs: “We have no evidence that there has been an invasion of intelligent life,” Conley told Fortune in an interview on Friday.  The objective is more about keeping NASA in compliance with the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  “It is extremely important that as we explore space that we do it in a careful way,” she said. “If you want to find life on other planets, you have to be careful not to find Earth life by accident.”

So, despite the 6-figure salary, the PPO is not likely to be suiting up in a cargo loader and going toe-to-toe with the Queen Mother alien any time soon.


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