There is no job at NASA that is not cool. (Think about what the janitor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sees every day. That box in the corner? It’s a box of spaceship parts.) A list of “coolest NASA jobs” is practically arbitrary in selection; it’s like listing “cutest puppies” or “tastiest ice creams.” With that in mind, here are a few actual jobs in America’s space program that are probably cooler than yours.
Planetary Protection Officer
This position recently made the news after its vacancy was announced. If you’re in the job market, update your resume and apply for planetary protection officer while you can. NASA has spacecraft across the solar system. Sometimes, we land those spacecraft on other planets, and sometimes we grab samples of extraterrestrial rocks and soil and bring them back to Earth. If there’s microbial life in those samples, the most important thing is to avoid cross contamination.
Martian life, if it exists, likely didn’t evolve from a common ancestor as life here, and there’s no telling how it would harm our ecosystem. On the other side of the coin, when we land spacecraft on other worlds, we need to be sure they are sterilized for the same reason. We don’t want to destroy alien life, and if we one day discover alien life, we don’t want it to be something we brought from Earth in the first place. The planetary protection officer is in charge of this process.
Planetary Defense Officer
This is the second of the two coolest job titles in all of government. The solar system isn’t quite as clean and orderly as you learned in grade school. It’s not colorful marbles on wires circling a yellow light bulb, and the asteroid belt isn’t this super dense field that neatly separates the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. (In fact, when flying a spacecraft through the asteroid belt, it would be much, much harder to hit an asteroid than to miss one. Space is big.) There are all sorts of objects large and small flying around the interior of the solar system. They are called “near Earth objects,” and as the dinosaurs would tell you, they can be big trouble for little Earth. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, led by the Planetary Defense Officer, keeps an eye out for potentially hazardous objects, and if one is headed our way, leads the government response.
The United States is the only country to have ever landed an object successfully on Mars, and we’ve done it again and again and again. Those success don’t come easy, as demonstrated last year by the crashed Russian-European lander. It takes seven minutes to land an object on Mars, during which time the spacecraft has to go from 13,000 miles per hour to zero, and land gently so as not to damage the delicate onboard scientific instruments. Landings require use of a supersonic parachute, retrorockets, and a skycrane.
The Rube Goldberg-like landing hardware amounts to one of the single greatest engineering achievements in human history. Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) engineers are the ones who make it happen.
What is life and where can it exist? Those are harder questions to answer than you might think, and scientists are discovering that life can exist just about anywhere. The bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest spot on Earth—is teeming with life. Areas with no oxygen? Life. Microscopic cracks in rocks? Life. Miles beneath Antarctica? Life. The question becomes where can life survive on other worlds, and how do we detect it? Astrobiologists are the men and women who work on that problem. So far, life has only been found on one planet (Earth) but missions are in the works to find life, if it exists, on Mars and Europa, one of Jupiter’s ocean moons.
Mars is the ultimate off-road terrain, and it’s hard on the poor rovers who have to drive it. The rocks are sharp, the temperatures extreme, and there is the occasional sand trap that will grab hold and never let go. It takes a human-computer partnership to drive on that kind of surface. Computer scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s robotics section send the command sequences to the Mars rovers. Their business cards say “Rover Planner,” but in practice, their real job is the much cooler “Rover Driver.”
Nerd trivia: Darth Vader wears different suits throughout the original Star Wars trilogy. Sometimes it’s smooth and highly polished, sometimes it’s scuffed and dented, depending on whether he’s going off to battle, piloting a space fighter, or meeting with the Emperor. Astronaut spacesuits aren’t that different! Today, astronauts wear spacesuits that are geared toward floating in space outside the International Space Station. Tomorrow, they might be in suits for walking around on Mars.
Different external needs—attaching scientific instruments versus collecting rocks—but the same internal ones: comfort and air. It’s somebody’s job to figure out the best general designs for these conditions, and to put the suits through rigorous testing. (Once you’re on Mars, it’s a bit late to correct a design flaw.) The latest model by spacesuit designers is the Z-2, which is geared for Martian exploration. It looks nothing like you’ve come to expect. In future years, as NASA returns to the Moon and then to the moons of Mars, expect to see even more—and exciting—designs.
This is an obvious one, but come on. There are people whose job it is to fly to space. Sometimes they’re working from the International Space Station (which, you might not realize, zips around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. That’s 12 times faster than a speeding bullet). Sometimes they’re playing golf on the Moon. One day they’re going to work on Mars.
Approximately 107 billion human beings have ever walked the Earth. Just over 500 have floated above it. Only 12 have walked on the lunar surface. That is an elite group. To qualify in general, you need to be in perfect (perfect!) health, psychologically fit, have a clean background, a giant brain, and occasionally, steely piloting skills. And yes, astronauts hold a security clearance, so if you’re reading this, you have at least one of those boxes checked.