On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite to be launched into an “elliptical low orbit”. It is perhaps lesser known, however, that one year before that, the concept that we could potentially cause interplanetary contamination was raised at the International Astronautical Congress in Rome. This led to the creation of recommendations to explore space with as clean and sterile equipment as possible by an international space body two years later.
In order to fully consider the fact that we could be a threat to any potential extraterrestrial life (not just the other way around), Nasa named its first planetary quarantine officer in 1963. Although its name has now changed to planetary protection officer, its duties remain largely the same. According to Nasa’s website, these duties include preserving our ability to study other worlds; avoiding the biological contamination of explored environments that may obscure our ability to find life elsewhere – if it exists; and to ensure that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case life does exist elsewhere.
From 2006 the role was held by Dr Catherine Conley but 2018 saw “the changing of the guard” and Dr Lisa Pratt – an astrobiologist at the University of Indiana – taking up the helm. To capture what is one of Nasa’s “most interesting, yet least-understood” divisions, Topic sent photographer and It’s Nice That fave Damien Maloney to the Lockheed Martin facility in Denver.
“Topic approached me with this story which was really exciting because it aligns closely with my interests,” Damien recalls, “there is absolutely no way I would be able to get the access I did without their support on this.” The resulting series provides a glimpse into what protecting the universe against earthly microbes entails at a close range.
The photos were taken at Lockheed Martin, but also the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre near Washington DC and depict suited workers rigorously testing probes, landing gear and other space paraphernalia. “I was really surprised with how much access I was actually given in the labs, in Denver I was allowed in the cleanroom where a team was installing some of the final instruments on the Mars InSight lander,” Damien explains. Understandably, Damien was required to wear head-to-toe scrubs with gloves and hood and also had to have all of his camera equipment disinfected.
With their stark interiors and poised teams of people, the photos hold a level of tension and stillness. “The mood was really intense,” Damien tells It’s Nice That, “I was told that this moment I had just stepped into was essentially the culmination of a decades-long project. I could feel everyone’s’ concentration and emotions and they all looked exhausted – I was very lucky to be there for that.”
To view the full series, visit Topic’s website.
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