Insider Fact Check: Is NASA hiring someone to protect Earth from aliens?
It never fails: Let the news cycle get a little slow and someone decides to get creative with the facts. Such was the case on Wednesday, August 1, when supposedly credible and professional sites such as USA Today and Newsweek dropped the ball and resorted to good ole fashioned clickbait-ing. It was a sign of the times that highlighted the current state of journalism in the U.S.
According to USA Today, NASA is hiring a Planetary Protection Officer to Protect Earth from Alien Harm (note to USA Today’s editors: get a Thesaurus – you should always use synonyms instead of the using the same word over and over again). Of course, as soon as one clicks the link, they are hit up by a tsunami of ads.
Newsweek apparently opted to up the “ridiculous” ante by having a disco-themed score added to their video that leads their story on the subject (once you get past the advertising that is). Their article is likely to make Woodward and Bernstein blush with jealousy (or, more likely, embarrassment for what this story says about the current plight of their profession). One NASA official made his thoughts about the rash of articles that are spreading misinformation about the position plain.
“While I’m far from hopping on a ‘fake news’ bandwagon, I am growing [tired] of legitimate media trivializing stories, such as the most recent ‘NASA wants to pay someone $180k to protect us from aliens’,” NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Bob Jacobs said via a Facebook post. “Seriously, are we devolving into little more than clickbait media environment without any attention to fact?”
So what are the facts and is NASA actually looking for its own version of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to defend us from aliens? In a word – no. According to the official post on USA Jobs, the Planetary Protection Officer‘s duties include the following:
The Planetary Protection Officer (PPO) is responsible for the leadership of NASA’s planetary protection capability, maintenance of planetary protection policies, and oversight of their implementation by NASAs [sic] space flight missions. The PPO also supports the Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Technical Authority and serves as a principal advisory resource for the Chief, SMA and other senior officials on matters pertaining to planetary protection. The PPO is the Agency’s focal point for interactions with external organizations on matters related to planetary protection. Primarily the Planetary Protection Officer performs the following:
Leads planning and coordination of activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs. Leads independent evaluation of, and provides advice regarding, compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions with NASA planetary protection policies, statutory requirements and international obligations.
Advises the Chief, SMA and other officials regarding the merit and implications of programmatic decisions involving risks to planetary protection objectives. In coordination with relevant offices, leads interactions with COSPAR, National Academies, and advisory committees on planetary protection matters. Recommends and leads the preparation of new or revised NASA standards and directives in accordance with established processes and guidelines.
In essence, the job makes sure that any potential contamination that comes in from the probes NASA sends out into the Solar System does not come back with extraterrestrial biological contamination. So, think less Independence Day and more Andromeda Strain.
In terms of what the office does, their duty is to ensure that unknown and potentially hazardous organisms don’t find their way back to Earth. The office also works to preserve life that has evolved on distant worlds or in the oceans of moons in our own solar system. Spacecraft such as Galileo (which had orbited the gas giant Jupiter) and Cassini (which has been in operation around the ringed planet Saturn since July 2004) already have or will end their missions by taking plunges into the clouds of these massive worlds (Galileo was safely deorbited in 2003).
Are you musing at this point that our response to the ‘reporting’ that has appeared on this subject is too harsh? Business Insider used art from the 1996 Twentieth Century Fox film Independence Day to promote their article – you know, a giant spaceship, over New York, shooting a death ray (no we’re not joking). How one can tie a job posting about a science position where one considers biological contamination issues to a ginormous alien death machine destroying New York? It defies all definitions of honesty.
What makes the so-called reporting on this matter all the more disappointing is the fact that it isn’t even a new position. It has been around for at least a decade, with people actually handling the responsibilities of the position for much longer.
While Jacobs might not have much time for bloggers pretending to be journalists, he had some salient points about NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection.
“Consider how many people have the technical and scientific credentials to execute the job. By the way, if you know of anyone qualified, encourage them to apply. Let’s leave the alien hunting to someone on the SyFy channel,” Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider, denoting why the position pays so well.
The mainstream media no longer have qualms about hunting down a teenage blogger for making a funny meme that mocked them, nor do they see anything wrong about posting pictures of the “Greys” working out at Area 51 in regards to a story about the prevention of possible biological contamination. Perhaps the reporting originated from the same place where those Greys tend to use their probes. While the over-sensationalizing of this mundane job listing might achieve the short term goal of gaining them a few more clicks, it also means the continued degradation of how the public views the media.
Video courtesy of NASA
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.