Several media outlets claimed NASA wanted to hire planetary protection officers to defend Earth from an alien invasion, but the reality is far less glamorous and potentially harmful to the space agency’s mission.
NASA is actually looking for someone to make sure bacteria and microorganisms don’t contaminate space probes. For example, the office is supposed to stop potential Mars-based bacteria from coming to Earth.
But NASA critics say the job posting demonstrates the organizational decay at the agency
“The request by NASA for a new ‘Planetary Protection Officer’ salaried at $187,000 per year has provoked some hilarity, but the problem is much greater than the hiring of another useless overpaid bureaucrat,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars and wrote the “The Case For Mars,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“In fact, NASA’s planetary protection program serves no function but to cripple the space program at a cost to the taxpayers of billions of dollars,” Zubrin said.
The NASA job, which would pay up to $187,000 annually, would involve “the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration.” The position is also responsible preventing potential extraterrestrial organisms from entering Earth’s biosphere or infecting humans in space stations.
“Could business trips include intergalactic travel? Men in Black, is that you?” asks the USA Today, referring to the job. “[Y]our work could stave off an alien invasion of Earth or, more important, protect other planets from us,” claims The Washington Post.
The Planetary Protection office argues that since no Earth organism has ever been exposed to Martian organisms, they have no resistance to Martian pathogens. They claim that if an object returned to Earth from Mars, it could potentially destroy the entire terrestrial biosphere.
“The program says that it needs to protect Mars and Earth from ‘contaminating’ each other, but the fact of the matter is that there is not one shred of evidence to support the notion that life of any kind, let alone pathogens of macrofauna or macroflora, or free-living microbes with superior adaptation to the terrestrial environment than native species, exists on the Martian surface,” Zubrin said. “There can’t be, because the Martian surface is bathed in sterilizing UV light, has no liquid water, and contains peroxides that are fatal to microorganisms.”
Zubrin argues that if Martian microorganisms exist, Earth has almost certainly already been exposed to them. He states that fear of back contamination is greatly hampering NASA’s attempts to land missions on the moon and Mars.
“The argument is not whether measures should be taken to protect the Mars sample from terrestrial contamination,” Zubrin said. “Everyone agrees that such measures should be taken to preserve the scientific value of the sample. The issue is whether foundationless fears should be allowed to distort mission design so as to increase the chance of failure. NASA lost two Ranger lunar missions as a result of completely pointless spacecraft sterilization measures demanded by the planetary protection folks.”
Zubrin has said that hypothetical risks of deadly microorganisms coming to Earth from Mars have no scientific validity. He claims that bacteria and viruses are only deadly when they evolve in concert with the organisms they infect. A bacteria from Mars would be less directly related to a human being than a tree, making any such infection effectively impossible. He says that an astronaut being infected by a Martian bacteria is far less likely than a human catching Dutch Elm disease or an elm tree tree catching a cold.
“If, despite all the above, there somehow were Martian surface microbial life, then it is already here,” Zubrin said. “The Earth receives about 500 kg/year of meteorites ejected from Mars … There is also little doubt that sizable fractions of the ejected putative bacteria could survive the interplanetary transfer and re-entry at Earth as well.”
Other scientists recommended in the science journal Nature that planetary protection measures need to be scaled down, because of the natural exchange of meteorites.
“The planetary protection office has greatly increased the cost and risk, and delayed the schedule of the Mars Sample Return, by requiring that it be done with multiple spacecraft and in-space rendezvous in order the ‘break the chain of contact with Mars,'” Zubrin said. “If not for them, using the 1000 kg landing capability demonstrated on the Curiosity mission, we could land a fully-fueled two-stage Mars Ascent Vehicle with a Spirit-sized rover, capable of gathering samples and sending them in a capsule directly back to Earth … Instead the agency has turned the mission into a long-term multi-launch, multi-spacecraft vision to satisfy its charlatans.”
Zubrin claims that planetary protection measures have played a major roll in vastly increasing the cost of missions to Mars and other celestial bodies while simultaneously stopping NASA from doing a lot of science.
“In light of the above, the planetary protectors also need to explain why building a Maginot Line around NASA’s tiny 500 gram sample is a worthwhile activity while Mother Nature, laughing at their quarantine orders, continues to deliver thousands of kilograms of uninspected and unsterilized materials, both ways,” Zubrin said.
NASA’s previous planetary protection officer told Scientific American in 2014 that one of her concerns was that humans travelling to Mars could contaminate the planet if they died there. The previous job holder claimed the roll was important, because it prevented NASA from polluting other planets and repeating the mistakes humans have made on Earth.
“That’s just nuts,” Zubrin said. “The Planetary Protection Office needs to be shut down.”
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