The information bullet

Meet your “Planetary Protection Officer”

I learned today that NASA has a guy whose actual job title is “Planetary Protection Officer.”

His name is John Rummel, and his task is to make sure that space probes we send to other planets don’t accidentally contaminate them with Earth microbes — and, more freakily, vice versa. After all, it would suck rather badly to finally have a probe discover life on Mars … only to kill the entire planet dead when a flu microbe that accidentally stowed away infects the place. Vice versa: NASA’s working on a probe that will go to Mars, grab some soil, and come back. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come back with some really hideous interplanetary version of Montezuma’s Revenge. NASA dudes delicately refer to these little holocausts as “forward contamination” and “backward contamination”.

Thus, it’s Rummel’s job to carefully inspect every single nut and bolt that goes into a planetary space probe, and make sure somebody hasn’t sneezed on it. Hell, or even touched it with their bare hands! This can involve some pretty intense stuff: To satisfy the dictates of the Planetary Protection Office, NASA had to take the entire 1975 Viking Mars probe and bake it in a 400 degree kiln.

Can you imagine how cool this guy must feel when he’s at a cocktail party and someone asks, “So what do you do for a living?” As he notes in a recent op-ed piece:

There are days when I ask myself, “Is it worth it?” After all, given the heightened awareness about Earth organisms and their newfound capabilities in extreme environments-to say nothing of the troubles that immune-compromised patients face with normally benign microbes-I figure the need for back contamination controls for missions to places possibly harboring life should be obvious. So I sometimes wonder if I, as Planetary Protection Officer, can really make a difference.

Nice, though, that we seemed to have learned something from our last experience of “contact,” back when the Spanish — whoops — liquidated the American indigenous population with European microbes. Rummel’s next big mission is making sure we don’t accidentally give Jupiter’s moon Europa a huge case of the sniffles when we hit it with a probe in the next decade. Apparently, it’s got a really nice juicy atmosphere and icy surface, which is very suitable for life — and, thus, also, for killin’.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson