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Planetary protection officer in "Life"
Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, a planetary protection officer aboard the International Space Station, in the movie “Life.” (Sony Pictures Digital Productions)

Spoiler Alert! This article doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but wait to read it if you’re trying to stay totally in the dark about the plot of the movie “Life.”

Let sleeping Martians lie, particularly if they have a strong grip: That’s one of the lessons you could take away from “Life,” the first monster movie set on the International Space Station.

Previously: ‘Life’ draws upon real-life biology and worst-case space scenarios

The movie – which opens today and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds – blends the gory horror of “Alien” with the harrowing suspense of “Gravity.” It’s a tour de force of simulated zero-G acrobatics (done mostly with ropes and wires). And it’s an orbital illustration of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong with having an alien on board does go wrong.

Purists may have questions about just how wrong it goes. Could a minuscule life form brought back from Mars really get that big that quickly? Is it really possible to combine neural, muscular and sensory functions in one cell? And just how easy is it for things to come loose (or get loose) on the space station?

The deepest question may well be, does this nightmare have any chance of happening in real life?

We’ve seen lots of extraterrestrial takeovers on the big screen, ranging from “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Andromeda Strain” to “The War of the Worlds” and the “Alien” series (which has a new installment coming out in May). Do we really want to be bringing samples back from Mars, as NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to do, perhaps in the 2020s?

One of the characters in “Life” is a planetary protection officer, charged with guarding against alien contamination. (Spoiler alert: She won’t be getting a good job review.)

As strange as it sounds, real-life scientists have been thinking about these issues for decades. One of them is John Rummel, who served as NASA’s planetary protection officer from 1998 to 2006 and is now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

The way Rummel and his colleagues see it, bringing Martian samples directly to Earth would be more sensible than keeping them on the space station – and just might head off the kinds of troubles that play out in the movie “Life.” Here’s an edited Q&A in which Rummel explains why:

GeekWire: If we ever get a sample back from Mars, what would happen to it? As far as I know, it’s supposed to be brought back in a redundantly sealed container, sent down to a landing on Earth, and then taken to a containment facility. Any word on where that facility might be?

John Rummel
John Rummel (NASA Photo)

Rummel: “No decisions have been made on the precise nature of the in-flight containment, the containment facility itself, or its location.  Look for the National Environmental Policy Act review process to be employed by NASA to address those issues, when NASA is ready.”

Q: In the movie, the alien organism is being studied on the space station to make sure it’s kept far away from Earth. Why do the real-life scenarios call for Martian samples to be studied in a containment facility on Earth, rather than on a platform in space?

Rummel: “The central issue is that ‘what goes up, will come down.’ The ISS, and anything else in Earth orbit, will eventually crash on the planet. Thus, a controlled ‘crash’ of a spacecraft designed to do that, and a containment facility that doesn’t lack material support, is preferred.

“The issue of ‘get-home-itis’ is also there. Telling a research crew that they can’t come back until they either 1) find life, or 2) show that the sample is free of it, could very well prejudice the outcome of the studies done there.”

Q: What sort of consultation would be done in the process of studying Martian samples? In the movie, the space station crew seems to be on its own – which leads to problems. Would planetary protection officers on Earth have veto power over particular experiments?

A: “This is another reason to do the work on Earth. It would be expected that several layers of expertise would be provided (from theoreticians to investigators to technicians to robotic-repair personnel – plus journalists!), to ensure that the return-sample protocol is done correctly and that no clues are missed due to a lack of expertise.”

Q: What provisions are there for responding if a Mars organism were to get out of containment?

A: “None, at this moment. We have to catch one first! When we commit to a sample-return and biohazard containment facility, those questions would addressed both by NASA and by the regulatory agencies having authority over the importation of exotic organisms to the U.S. (and elsewhere on Earth).”

For more about NASA’s plans to protect our planet from aliens (and protect alien samples from earthly contamination), check out the website for NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection and The New York Times’ profile of NASA’s current planetary protection officer, Catharine Conley.

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