Ever heard a science fiction story about the life of a “planetary protection officer”? Me neither. Buckle up though people, because this is exactly what some of the world’s premiere space agencies have in the pipeline.
NASA and the European Space Agency are both looking to hire full-time planetary protection officers. Their role? To prevent the contamination of Earth by alien forces, and to stop Earth from contaminating other planets. Now I know all your minds are jumping to legendary alien killers from Hollywood; Han Solo in Star Wars, and Will Smith in Independence Day – but unlike Will Smith, this officer will be more environmentalist than alien-punching badass. Alien contamination is less a matter of world-busting, soul-harvesting and galaxy-conquering, and more about germs in a Petri dish. It’s easy to get carried away with imaginations of intergalactic slaughter, but what ‘contamination’ really means is infecting a pristine alien environment through human presence. A good example of this is a probe called the Cassini-Hyugens. The Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and recently came into contact with an underwater ocean on the surface of one of Saturn’s moons. Enceladus, the oceanic moon, is covered in cryovolcanoes, which are essentially water volcanoes that launch saltwater from beneath the moon’s ice crust into outer space. The Cassini was struck with one such plume of saltwater, and researchers immediately decided that it should be destroyed, lest it contaminate the surface of a watery moon that could contain alien life. The planetary protection officer would most likely be involved in missions just like this. Putting down drones unlucky enough to encounter alien water-worlds is just part of protecting the universe, and preserving its secrets for full scientific exploration. Still, directing missions involving water volcanoes on ice planets seems like something far more futuristic than what we’re ready for in 2017. Any encounter with alien life, however, would probably not be conscious or humanoid life. Just as trees and viruses are in some sense ‘alive’, it makes more sense to expect biomasses and organic bonds to compose entirely new categories of life. What, truly is, life? We may not be able to answer the question until we encounter all its myriad forms spread across the universe. Writer Nnedi Okorafor, whose book Who Fears Death is set to be adapted into an HBO series, has created organic spacecraft in her fiction. Imagine creatures like whales swimming through the galaxies – sounds cool, right? So what does this crazy new job pay? Well, NASA are offering up to 187,000 per year for the right candidates. I suppose almost 100 dollars an hour is fair pay for the real-life version of Will Smith… As a race, we continue to entertain labyrinthine, kaleidoscopic visions of a world split between the dark unknown of space and the beauty of an eternally expanding horizon. More and more, the limits of science fiction resemble a fractured mystical fantasy more than a super-society held together by Elon Musk and NASA. Could this planetary protection officer be the beginning of a new space age, charted forth by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of global cooperation and permanent peacetime in the stars? Or will it be a historical notch for us to hang the cables of a new future upon, a call-back to an age when humans sought escape from an Earth choking in existential doubt, climate madness, and the sense of individual life becoming redundant against a perpetual stream of terrifying information? The story of technology, whatever it becomes, is the story of humankind. Now is an instrumental moment, then, to consider: what is the goal of space travel? Is it to sell tickets for trips to Mars? To attain knowledge for its own sake? Or to seek someone else’s utopia?