IU astrobiologist’s new position with NASA is ‘out of this world’
Feb 20, 2018
Description of the following video:
Lisa Pratt Final Video Transcript
[Video: Professor emeritus Lisa Pratt is interviewed about her new role as NASA’s planetary protection officer]
[Pratt Speaks: It seems to me, that the most important question we as human beings could ever answer is “Are we alone?”]
[Video: NASA footage of astronauts in space, the Mars rover and outer space images of Earth are shown. [Pratt speaks: Do we know enough about the possibility of present day life on Mars to safely take astronauts there?]
[Video: More footage of outer space.]
[Pratt speaks: have a burden, a burden of responsibility] [Video: Video footage of scientists working in labs and at NASA are shown] [Pratt speaks: to figure out how we collaborate with all the other nations and individuals who are capable of reaching Mars to ensure that we understand what’s there before we bring bits and pieces or intact spores of Earth organisms to Mars and inadvertently inoculate a habitable planet.]
[Video: Pratt is shown on video]
[Pratt speaks: During my time at IU, there are two things that I am most proud of. One is the recognition that there was a complex eco system in these very, very deep, hot fluids in South Africa] [Video: Image of Pratt and a colleague wearing hard helmets underground. Video of hot water fluids]
[Video: Pratt is shown on video] [Pratt speaks: That then led to the realization that Earth is unusually hot in the subsurface, and if we’re interested in Mars, Mars is a much colder planet.] [Video: Footage of Pratt with colleagues working underground wearing hard helmets. Video footage of Mars]
[Pratt speaks: We then proposed similar work in deep mines in the Canadian Arctic.] [Video: Image of Pratt and colleagues in the field. Image of Pratt drilling holes into the surface.]
Video: Pratt is shown on video] Pratt speaks: That was a real turning point for me because that research was closely coupled to things that NASA wanted to know. That was sort of the critical moment when my career shifted to the exploration for life in places on Earth where people really hadn’t done much looking.] [Video: Pratt walks down the hall into a lab putting on purple gloves. Pratt is working with lab materials. Blue liquid in a test tube is being used in an experiment.]
[Video: Image of Pratt working with a colleague on rock surface.] [Pratt speaks: The other thing I’m most proud of is the field campaign in Greenland right on the margin of the Greenland ice sheet.] [Video: Image of Pratt working on the Greenland ice sheet]
[Pratt speaks: I am so excited about the opportunity to be in the room when the decision-making conversations are taking place. To be actively participating in thinking about what are our rights and responsibilities at the moment in time when humans become space faring]
[Video: Pratt works with post-graduate student in the lab conducting an experiment]
[Pratt speaks: Well the good thing for me is I still have graduate students completing their doctoral dissertations. Bloomington is home and I have no intention of that changing. [Pratt works with student on an experiment in lab]
[Video: Pratt is shown in her office.] [Pratt speaks: I see myself as being a very active emeritus faculty member and having very strong ties here for the foreseeable future.]
The job is literally out of this world. A faculty member in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences for the past 30 years, Pratt was sworn in to her new position Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C. She will remain a professor emerita at IU.
In her new role, Pratt is responsible for protecting our planet from potential extraterrestrial life forms, as well as preventing transportation of Earth’s microbes on exploratory missions to other planets, like Mars. The position is within NASA’s Safety and Mission Assurance Technical Authority.
“These are our first steps,” she said. “In our own solar system, our own backyard, is there evidence of another form of life that is similar enough to life as we know it on Earth to recognize it as living? We need to start the quest by carefully exploring the planetary bodies near Earth.”
But rather than aliens invading Earth, Pratt’s major concern is the “extraterrestrial side.” Her position guards against accidentally carrying bits and pieces of Earth to other planets. This is especially important since discoveries over the past 10 years – such ice near the surface of Mars – have caused scientists to regard the planet as much more habitable than previously thought.
What qualifies a person to serve as a real-life “guardian of the galaxy”? Pratt said her research at IU prepared her for NASA. Joining the university’s faculty in 1987, she has worked to understand how microorganisms adapt to extreme environments. To do so, she had to visit places where people hadn’t done much looking.
Top left photo by Anna Powell Teeter; top right and bottom photos courtesy of Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp.
The first project that led to work with NASA came about 15 years ago. She and colleagues from across the globe ventured into active gold mines in South Africa to search for life in the hot waters that flow deep underground. It turned out to be a critical moment in her career, she said. Because the research was closely coupled to things that NASA wanted to know about life in extreme environments, the agency began to fund future projects – as well as invite her to sit on committees and serve on review panels.
But studying life at high temperatures didn’t provide enough insight into how organisms might survive the low temperatures on Mars – or potentially the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Therefore, Pratt pursued similar work in the Canadian Arctic and, most recently, co-led a $2.4 million grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program to sample methane on the margin of the Greenland ice sheet. That project was a collaboration with Jeffrey White, a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“Everything I’ve been working on and doing with my students has contributed to preparing me to think about how we sample life in extreme environments on Earth, and what we look for, learning from our field campaigns on Earth and then trying to translate that work to a robotic mission on a remote landing,” she said.
Looking forward, Pratt said she’s excited for the Mars 2020 mission, which will be the first step in potentially bringing back samples from Mars to study in labs on Earth. Smaller missions to further look at Mars are in the works, too.
“Mars is relatively clean, so let’s try to find the answers before we change the conditions forever,” Pratt said.
The effort will require a lot of hard work, careful investigation and collaboration with other nations to create policies regarding future planetary exploration. But Pratt is up for the challenge.
“I’m thrilled that at this point in my career, I’m able to shift from environmental research on Earth to thinking about how to safely and ethically conduct the search for the evidence of life on Mars and the other planetary bodies,” she said. “I fully expect we will encounter life in our solar system.”
Although her new role at NASA requires her to live in Washington, D.C., Pratt will regularly return to IU to work with Ph.D. students who are conducting research in her lab on campus.
“Bloomington is home, and I have no intention of that changing,” she said. “I see myself being an active emerita faculty member and maintaining very strong ties to campus.”