Rest easily, Earthlings … the planet is once again being protected. NASA, which has been looking since last August for a new Planetary Protection Officer to protect the planet against threats from other planets and to protect other planets from threats and contaminates being delivered by Earth-launched space probes, announced that the position has been filled. It’s a big job that just got bigger with the discovery of new planets outside of the Milky Way galaxy. Could that be why the previous Planetary Protection Officer retired?
NASA announced the search for a new PPO in August 2017 when the previous Planetary Protection Officer, Catherine Conley, retired after three years on the job. NASA advertised the up-to- $187,000-a year position for a month, then spent four months interviewing candidates before choosing Lisa Pratt, who will step down from her current position as associate executive dean of Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences.
"The title is not a title anybody should have."
That doesn’t sound like someone who just got a new job, especially one that all of humanity is dependent on, but Lisa Pratt convinced her new bosses that she’s the right person to handle it. The daughter of a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, she received a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of North Carolina and a master’s in botany from the University of Illinois. Then she did what anyone with that kind of education behind them would do … she became a bartender.
Fortunately, a college mentor convinced her to go back to school and get a master’s and Ph.D. in geology, giving her what would eventually be the perfect combination of sciences to become a Planetary Protection Officer. But first, she caught NASA’s attention (and received a $2.4 million grant) with her work on the Greenland Ice Sheet (which is similar to conditions on other planets and moons) to study methane emissions and microbial life there.
Despite those qualifications, her work experience and encouragement from NASA colleagues, Pratt wasn’t sure she was right for the job, especially since it was located in Washington DC – not exactly a welcome home for scientists these days. However, she received the offer and, after getting the OK from her husband and daughters, accepted the big job. And Pratt knows it’s big.
“I am excited about the opportunity to contribute to the mission of planetary protection at a defining moment in human evolution and the advancement of science. We are on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species, and I feel privileged to be invited into an extraordinary conversation, pushing the frontiers of science, exploration and discovery at NASA. This position plays a direct role in seeking evidence to address a profound question: Are we alone?”
If we aren’t, it sounds like Lisa Pratt is the perfect Planetary Protection Officer to welcome ETs to Earth and assure them we’re not contagious and didn’t mean to send those germs to Mars.