Thursday, June 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth The pressure's on the next planetary protection officer

Can you fathom a snazzier job title than planetary protection officer?

And if you have the right qualifications, NASA wants you! One wonders if the planetary protection officer gets to carry one of those nifty Barrel Plasma Guns or perhaps a Reverberating Carbonizer like Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. But since the PPO gig also comes with a security clearance NASA would have to kill you if they told you.

Imagine coming home after a hard day protecting the planet, fighting off Ceti eels and Jabba the Hutt and your spouse asks, "How was work today sweetums?"

"Oh those crazy Romulans were at it again, dumping their trash all over Ursa Major. I've warned them again and again. But they keep leaving empty cans of Kali-Fal spread out across the Little Dipper and Ursa Minor is getting plenty ticked off. Wait until the Constellation Association gets wind of this. Remember when Darth Vader kept parking the Death Star on the street instead of the garage? This won't be pretty."

Think of the work as being sort of a cosmic janitor.

In essence, the job description for the planetary protection officer gig says this person will be responsible for preventing alien micro-organisms from reaching Earth as well a stopping contamination of alien worlds by our own interstellar probes and missions.

But those alien organisms might already be here. See: Gov. Rick Scott.

This may be the most exclusive club in the world. Aside from NASA's planetary protection officer, only one other person on the globe holds a similar position with the European Space Agency. And that job probably only involves keeping tabs on Ozzy Osbourne and Keith Richards at all times.

Applicants for planetary protection officer must have an advanced degree in engineering, or science or math. But c'mon, William Shatner had none of that geeky stuff and he got to be an admiral on the starship USS Enterprise.

You also need at least one year of experience as a top level civilian government employee, so we can relax. That rules out President Donald Trump.

And you are required to be a recognized expert on planetary protection, which could result in a flood of applications from people dressed up like Dr. Spock who have attended at least 300 Star Trek conventions and do that spread finger Vulcan salute thing without even thinking about it.

Although not an official part of the job description, it might useful to be fluent in "Klaatu barada nikto," just in case the humorless Gort featured in The Day The Earth Stood Still gets into a foul funk and decides to cause some mischief.

You're probably wondering just what is the going rate for a planetary protection officer? NASA lists the salary at between $124,406 to $187,000-a-year, depending probably on the applicant's skill set to not faint during John Hurt's bloody exploding chest scene in Alien — no easy task.

This seems like a big job. After all protecting an entire planet literally covers an awful lot of ground. But NASA's current planetary protection officer, Catharine Conley, told the Sacramento Bee the stress level for the job is "moderate."

Really? Perhaps once upon a time the job involved merely creating contingency plans should the alien/zombie/vampire plot of Plan 9 From Outer Space actually turns out to be true.

But that was before Trump, who has described global warming as a "myth," entered the White House.

And the Trump Administration has been peppered with fellow travelers of climate change denial in such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to protect the planet; the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy.

Indeed, recently the head policy advisor at the Interior Department, Joel Clement, who raised issues about the draconian impact of climate change on native Alaskan communities, was demoted to a backwater bean-counter position.

Deborah Swackhamer, the EPA's top scientist on the agency's scientific review board, was pressured to change her testimony (she refused) that was critical of efforts to dismiss scientific experts from the scientific review board. Science — pftttt!

It's entirely possible the planetary protection officer may be getting more than he or she bargained for. It's one thing to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for a cootie-infested alien life-form penetrating our airspace. We've all seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Unpleasantness ensues.

It's quite another problem when the giant pea pods of planetary pollution are already germinating in the West Wing.

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