In an airline career that’s spanned 30 some odd years, United Security Operations Regional Manager Alan Marchetti has seen plenty of weird, wild stuff. Ask him to rank some of the more memorable episodes, though, and he might just name this one to the top of the list.
Marchetti, who is United’s security point of contact for all of Europe, received a phone call one morning not long ago from a government agency in the United Kingdom, where he’s based. The caller laid out the unique situation: A NASA plane traveling from Kazakhstan to the U.S. had diverted to Scotland for repairs. It would be a day or two before it was airworthy again, but by that time, its cargo—human tissue samples brought back from the International Space Station—would have been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere for too long to be of any scientific value.
NASA researchers studying the effects of space travel on the human body needed the samples ASAP, the caller explained, and a United flight was the only one that could get them to the lab in time. It sounded like an easy enough request to Marchetti, until he heard the caveat: The samples couldn’t go through the normal commercial airline security screening process, since X-rays could damage them.
If there’s one thing to be said about longevity in a job, it’s that you build up quite a Rolodex of contacts. Without a moment to spare, Marchetti worked the phones, talking with transportation safety officials in the U.K. and the U.S. until he had devised a suitable alternative screening method for the samples.
With that done, he called his colleagues at Edinburgh Airport and made sure United could accept and safely transport the samples, and then he confirmed space for them on a United flight departing shortly. In about two hours, Marchetti had the whole thing sorted out. The samples were inspected by security, took off from Scotland, landed in the U.S., and arrived at NASA’s lab intact.
So will the rich data they yield accelerate mankind’s exploration of the cosmos? And will we one day look back from our colonies on Mars and offer up a “thank you” to Alan Marchetti for helping make all of it possible?
“Who knows,” Marchetti says, with a laugh. “But it was a good feeling to be involved in something like this. If nothing else, it’s a nice story.”