Last week, the mainstream media fell all over itself to inaccurately report the details of NASA’s latest, and highest profile, job opening: a new position entitled Planetary Protection Officer. While the actual posting NASA placed on the government job board USAJobs called for an expert in planning, executing, or overseeing space missions of national significance to primarily protect alien ecosystems from Earth-borne contaminants, just about every news outlet with a webpage announced that NASA was on the hunt for our generation’s James T. Kirk.
That’s not all bad news, however, as the social media shares those outlets garnered through less than reputable means invariably led to NASA garnering a great deal more attention than they normally might. If NASA had posted an opening for a “bacterial contaminant specialist,” the four-letter acronym that represents our country’s official space faring outfit likely wouldn’t have been a trending topic over the weekend, and nine-year-old Jack Davis may never have come across the posting. Young Jack did find it, though, and he promptly hand wrote his own application.
My name is Jack Davis and I would like to apply for the planetary protection officer job,” the fourth-grader wrote. “I may be nine but 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.”
For all the faults I can levy at media outlets that are more concerned with driving traffic than they are with producing quality content, this situation reminds me of the old saying, “even a broken watch is right twice a day.” In this case, by posting stories full of misleading headlines about NASA hoping to hire a space cowboy (or cowgirl), these outlets successfully drew our budget-pressed space explorers into the spotlight for a few days – and thanks to young Jack Davis, that wave of headlines will continue for at least another news cycle or two.
Please, don’t misunderstand my appreciation for Mr. Davis’ efforts. I admire his ambition, his penmanship, and his taste in movies, but all the years I spent studying communications and marketing forces me to see a different, but nonetheless powerful, value to this letter. This nine-year-old just let the whole country know that kids still care about NASA. That’s a big deal.
I know, we’re here among friends, and many of the writers and readers here on SOFREP miss the days of American boldness in the face of the great unknown mysteries of space, but not everyone feels the same way. In a country with growing defense expenses, a domestic infrastructure in dire need of overhaul, and a national deficit that no longer even seems like real numbers, I can’t fault the reasoning one employs when being critical of throwing money into literal orbit. I can appreciate the standpoint… but I can’t agree with it.
Failing to fully fund NASA is very similar to our nation’s current headaches regarding maintaining our massive defensive infrastructure: you can’t only focus on the war you’re fighting today at the expense of preparing for the one you’ll be forced to fight tomorrow. The problems solved at NASA permeate through society, bolstering the private sector, and increasing national morale: something one might argue is currently a bit low. Jack Davis may not be old enough to land that gig at NASA, but through the media spectacle his letter has created, he may well have helped secure the jobs of those already there.
NASA exists at the will of the people – there’s nothing in our constitution that mandates the presence of a civilian space agency. As long as young Americans, like Jack Davis, look up to the stars and think to themselves, “one day, I could be an astronaut,” our space agency will continue to maintain the support it needs from those kids who grow up to be loud-mouthed internet types like me – or more importantly, tax-paying voters like all of us. Each time a story about Jack Davis’ letter is shared on Facebook or discussed on Twitter, it’s adding to a national conversation that centers around our country’s space scientists with dreams of solving mysteries beyond the reach of telescopes, and outside the interests of commercial enterprise. Jack may not get hired by NASA, but if I ran a PR firm, I’d sure as hell put him on retainer.
NASA, of course, responded to Jack’s letter with a great one of their own. Setting aside the cynical parts of my mind that led to this piece, the letter from Jack, and the response from NASA’s Dr. James Green, are sincerely sweet and genuinely motivating. I wish Jack Davis all the best, and hope to one day come to find that he’s made his way to NASA after all.
Because all of us dream of being astronauts one day, but the best thing about our kids – is that, for them, it might just happen.
You can read both letters below.
Images courtesy of NASA