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NASA is hiring someone to help figure out how to get Mars rocks back to Earth — and the position pays at least $182,000

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NASA is looking to fill an intriguing new role: The space agency needs someone to direct a mission to get the first rocks from Mars back to Earth.

© NASA/JPL-Caltech

“I’m excited about these missions because they have the opportunity to find life, they really do, and I want them to,” Green told The Telegraph. “We’ve never drilled that deep down. When environments get extreme, life moves into the rocks.”

Formally, the job is director of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, which aims to bring scientists pristine samples of rocks and soil from the red planet to study up close. The first step in that effort is the launch of the soon-to-be-named Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled for July 17. Once on the red planet, the robot is tasked with collecting and storing samples in sealed caches.

But getting them back to Earth is another matter – no mission is planned for that yet.

That’s where the new NASA role comes in.

According to the agency’s description, “the incumbent is responsible for implementation of all MSR program activities, beginning with mission formulation and continuing through design, development, launch, and mission operations.”

It’s based in Washington, DC, and would pay between $ 182,424 to $ 188,066 per year.

How to get Mars rocks back to Earth

Scientists have been itching to study pristine Martian soil in their own labs for many years. So far, they’ve only been able to examine fragments of Martian meteorites that hit Earth. The rest of the investigations have been done by rovers like Curiosity, which has collected samples on Mars’ surface, examined them with its own built-in tools, and beamed the data back to Earth.

a kite flying in the sky© NASA/JPL

NASA and the European Space Agency have committed to work together on the sample-return program. But it won’t be easy – or cheap.

The mission was included in NASA’s 2020 budget proposal request; the agency asked for $ 109 million to work on future Mars missions, a jump from the $ 50 million requested in 2019. Of NASA’s total budget of $ 22.6 billion, that’s almost 5%.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a dirt field© NASA/JPL-Caltech

The 2020 Mars rover is currently being tested and prepared for launch. It’s slated to reach the red planet in February 2021.

Assuming the robot lands successfully and is able to collect and store samples on Mars as planned, many questions still remain about how a future mission would get any samples back to Earth. Doing so would require the first-ever rocket launch from another planet.

a group of people standing around a plane© Damian Dovarganes

NASA predicts the mission wouldn’t finish until the end of the 2020s, if not later. So if you’re looking for a challenging, well-paying, long-term job, this might be for you.

What NASA is looking for

For the director of this ambitious program, of course, NASA has a long list of qualifications. The simplest are a bachelor’s degree in science, willingness to travel, and demonstrated leadership.

Experience executing end-to-end space-travel mission development is also required, since the job responsibilities include the design of the program and its budget, as well as continued project management and oversight. 

Candidates also need to be well versed in the strategic formulation of spaceflight programs – that means past leadership roles at organizations or companies working on space-exploration projects (SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, or NASA, for example).

The agency is looking for people who know how to work in fast-paced environments with a complex set of stakeholders, including many international, commercial, governmental, and community partners.

The application period closes February 5.

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