A 9-year-old applied to be NASA’s Guardian of the Galaxy. NASA’s reply is fantastically heartwarming

(Credit: NASA)

NASA recently put out a job post looking for a “planetary protection officer.”

The listing said the officer would be responsible for safeguarding Earth against the threat of harmful extraterrestrial matter, and the role, which has a six-figure annual salary of up to $187,000 (£141,292), involves protecting all of NASA’s spaceflight missions from unwanted contamination – either by Earth organisms passing onto other planets or moons, or by alien matter making its way back to our own planet.

It didn’t, however, state how old you needed to be. 

In response to the ad, a self-proclaimed “Guardian of the Galaxy” in the form of nine-year-old Jack Davis stepped up. In a letter applying for the role, Davis from New Jersey wrote: “My name is Jack Davis and I would like to apply for the planetary protection officer job.

“I may be nine but I think I would be fit for the job. One of the reasons is my sister says I am an alien. Also, I have seen almost all the space and alien movies I can see. I have also seen the show Marvel Agents of Shield and hope to see the movie Men in Black. I am great at video games. I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien.” The fourth grader signed it: “Sincerely, Jack Davis, Guardian of the Galaxy.”

NASA was so impressed by Davis, NASA’s planetary science director Jim Green wrote Davis a reply which read: “I hear you are a ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’ and that you’re interested in being a NASA Planetary Protection Officer. That’s great!

“Our Planetary Protection Office position is really cool and is very important work. It’s about protecting Earth from tiny microbes when we bring back samples from the moon, asteroids and Mars. It’s also about protecting other planets and moons from our gets as we responsibly explore the Solar System. We are always looking for bright future scientist and engineers to help us, so I hope you will study hard and do well in school. We hope to see you here at NASA one of these days!”

catharine-a-conley-nasa

(Above: Catherine Conley. Credit: NASA)

Davis also got a phone call from NASA’s planetary research director, Jonathan Rall at NASA HQ in Washington, to congratulate him on his interest in the position.

The role was created after the US signing of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which stipulates that those studying outer space, “conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

“Planetary protection is concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration,” the job listing reads. “NASA maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all space flight missions that may intentionally or unintentionally carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft, which are intended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration.”

The tenure lasts three years although it can be extended to five. Since 2014, Catharine Conley has occupied the position. Talking to Business Insider, she explained that part of the international space treaty means any mission must have a less than 1-in-10,000 probability of contaminating an alien world.

According to Conley, that’s a “moderate level […] it’s not extremely careful, but it’s not extremely lax”. All the same, it probably involves more than wiping down a robot arm with a wet wipe.

The job ad notes that “frequent travel may be required”, and candidates are expected to have broad engineering expertise, as well as an “advanced knowledge” of planetary protection. NASA also wants someone who has “demonstrated skills in diplomacy that resulted in win-win solutions during extremely difficult and complex multilateral discussions.” Not an entry-level job, then.  

Applications close on 14 August, and we’ve already flagged one potential issue budding planetary protection officers may want to consider – an asteroid that’s due to pass Earth by the end of this year.

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