Somewhere out there in the vastness of space, a deadly microbe may be lurking. An alien life-form that, if it ever reached planet Earth, would run like wildfire through an unprepared population. First, though, that killer bug would have to get past John Rummel.
Rummel is NASA's planetary protection officer. NASA's only planetary protection officer. In fact, the the only PPO on the planet. "To put it in simple terms," says Rummel, 46, "my job is to prevent The Andromeda Strain from happening."
To do that, Rummel, a biologist and former Navy flier, supervises the sterilization of all incoming and outgoing NASA vehicles. Given that our own germs could be deadly to any extraterrestrials, outgoing craft get the same scrupulous going-over—using everything from alcohol to heated gases—as incoming. "We don't have the right to wipe out other life," he says.
Although Rummel takes a world of kidding about being the Earth's only PPO—he goes along with it by wearing his official Men in Black sunglasses to work—he is convinced that someday one of NASA's probes will encounter alien life, most likely in microbial form. "There are 400 billion stars in this galaxy alone," he says. "To say we're the only place where life could possibly have happened is essentially absurd."
Rummel, who lives in Falmouth, Mass., with his wife, Jean, 47, a town administrator, and children Ian, 16, and Caitlin, 13, says he's not overly worried about the doomsday-alien scenarios you see in movies. "There's enough scary stuff in real-world biology," he says. "Besides, I know it's hard to get good outer-space microbes into the Screen Actors Guild."
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