- The U.S. and other world governments already have detailed
secret plans for first contact.
- Within the scientific community, the question is no longer
whether extraterrestrial life exists, but if ET is smart enough to do long
division. Scientists are of two minds regarding the existence of extraterrestrial
intelligence. Skeptics acknowledge simple life-forms might be found on
other planets, but insist that intelligent life is unique to Earth.
- Their belief is based on the assumption that Earth possesses
unique physical attributes, including a magnetic field that deflects cosmic
rays and a moon that absorbs asteroids. Together, these protective features
make Earth a rare safe harbor - one that nurtured the evolution of primitive
life-forms into intelligent beings.
- The opposing camp sees the prospect for discovering alien
life in more mathematical terms. Its touchstone is the Drake Equation,
which links the probability of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence
to factors such as the size of the universe and the number of stars with
earthlike planets With the discovery of each new planet beyond Earth's
solar system -t- here are now more than 100 - the odds of encountering
intelligent alien life increase. Governments and international organizations
around the world have taken notice of the changing odds.
- No governmental official has gone on record claiming
that UFOs are real, let alone a threat. Yet with little public fanfare,
they have begun preparing for the single most important event in human
history: first contact. That is, the moment earthlings discover incontrovertible
proof that they are not alone.
- Early Warning
- Unless ET materializes from another dimension in the
middle of the Super Bowl, humans most likely will have some advance warning
of its arrival. How much time we get to straighten up for extraterrestrial
company depends upon who spots ET first.
- The privately funded SETI Institute uses radio telescopes
owned by observatories around the world to sweep the sky for signals broadcast
by advanced civilizations. If ET has read Emily Post, or her intergalactic
equivalent, and calls ahead, we could have years, even decades, to prepare
for first contact. Unfortunately, the current SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence) project can afford to look at only small swatches of the
sky, so any extraterrestrial courtesy calls probably will be missed.
- A more likely scenario is that the U.S. Air Force would
spot ET's spacecraft as it traverses the void between the Earth and the
moon. Using powerful radar and optical telescopes in Hawaii, Greenland,
Florida and the Indian Ocean, the Air Force Space Command tracks satellites,
monitors missile launches, and spots baseball- and larger-size bits of
orbiting debris with the hope of preventing it from perforating a space
shuttle or the International Space Station. If ET turns up on Space Command's
radar, it would mean the alien visitors are only hours or minutes away.
- Countdown To Contact
- The broad-brush outline for Earth's response to the first
alien encounter is set out in an international agreement called the "Declaration
of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial
Intelligence." Written by a committee of scientists organized by the
SETI Institute, the declaration spells out what astronomers should do,
and what they should avoid doing, immediately after first contact.
- Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agreement is
that astronomers who sign on to the declaration agree to keep the news
of an imminent contact under their hat until the astronomy community and
authorities have been notified.
- The declaration also establishes fairly specific guidelines
regarding the protection of the radio frequencies that alien civilizations
might use to communicate with Earth. As soon as a radio signal is confirmed
as originating from an extraterrestrial source, the International Telecommunications
Union would ask governments around the world to forbid use of that portion
of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is hoped that ET will have sufficiently
studied human habits to understand that calling earthlings on the frequencies
used for microwave ovens and garage door openers will be interpreted as
a belligerent act.
- Close Encounter
- About five years ago the first contact protocols were
put to the test. For 12 hours, SETI astronomers marveled at the prospect
that their golden moment had arrived. A signal that repeated in an organized
pattern was detected beaming straight at the Earth from 1 million miles
- The first priority was to alert radio astronomers around
the world to redirect their telescopes. The signal from the distant stationary
object quickly faded as the relentless rotation of the Earth swept it out
of the telescope's listening range. Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's
social scientist responsible for preparing Earth's reply to an extraterrestrial
message, tells POPULAR MECHANICS what happened next: "At this point,
all of our discussions were internal to our team. We didn't want to cry
wolf. Then, in the midst of the process, we get a call from The New York
Times." So much for the secrecy provision of the SETI protocol. Within
hours, the story evaporated. The SETI team identified the mystery signal
as a data transmission from SOHO, a sun-watching observatory on an almost-stationary
orbit about 1 million miles from Earth.
- Vakoch says he was not surprised that the story of the
possible alien contact leaked so quickly. "These guidelines have no
legal force. They have been drafted in the hope of getting broader discussion."
- As far as the U.S. government is concerned, that discussion
started and ended more than 40 years ago. Regardless of how the world's
astronomy community might want to handle first contact. Uncle Sam has ideas
of his own. And they rest on the assumption that ET is first and foremost
an illegal alien.
- Presumed Dangerous
- The question of how humanity might react to its first
contact with intelligent aliens was officially raised in the late 1950s
by the then newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA). Curious as to how discoveries about the origin of the universe
might affect society as a whole, NASA contracted with the Brookings Institution,
a leading think tank, to research the question. Only a small part of its
100-page answer, which came to be known as "The Brookings Report,"
dealt with alien encounter. But it contained a stern warning. "Anthropological
files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe,
which have disintegrated when they had to associate with previously unfamiliar
societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that
survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes
in values and attitudes and behavior."
- In 1972, as engineers prepared the first space mission
that would travel outside of Earth's solar system, NASA decided to ignore
warnings in the 1960 "Brookings Report" about the dangers inherent
in contact with an advanced alien race. Instead, the space agency sent
an invitation for extraterrestrials to visit Earth. A gold-anodized aluminum
plaque engraved with a map showing the location of Earth was attached to
the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. When it sent its last message, in January 2003,
it was more than 7 billion miles along on a trip that will take it to the
- State Of Emergency
- If ET turns up at NASA's doorstep bearing that invitation,
it is in for a surprise. Instead of getting a handshake from the head of
NASA, it will be handcuffed by an FBI agent dressed in a Biosafety Level
4 suit. Instead of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House,
the alien will be whisked away to the Department of Agriculture's Animal
Disease Center on Plum Island, off the coast of New York's Long Island.
Here it will be poked and probed by doctors from the National Institutes
of Health. A Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST)
will tow away its spacecraft.
- Unfriendly as this welcome may seem, it is the chain
of events that most likely will follow the visitor's arrival. Unique as
the appearance of an alien-piloted spacecraft may be, the event incorporates
elements of three situations familiar to federal emergency response workers:
a plane crash, the release of radioactive material, and the capture of
an animal suspected of harboring a contagious disease. Responsibilities
in these situations are spelled out in Presidential Executive Orders.
- Unless it is spewing exhaust, the craft would be assumed
to be nuclear powered. This determination would put NEST technicians in
charge of securing the craft and moving it to a DOE facility, most likely
in New Mexico, where it would be in close proximity to the Sandia and Los
Alamos nuclear laboratories and the White Sands Missile Range. International
agreements also put NEST on call if the craft lands out of the United States,
as happened in 1978 when a Soviet satellite leaking nuclear fuel landed
in the Canadian wilderness.
- NEST, however, would operate in the background. In a
nuclear emergency, the FBI is put in charge of public safety, public health
and public information. Those, at least, are the plans. How things might
actually turn out is anyone's guess.
- Skeptics often ask why UFO sightings seem to take place
only in remote locations instead of on busy city streets. Perhaps ET knows
what earthlings have in mind when it lands.
- "A signal that repeated in an organized pattern
was detected beaming straight at the Earth from 1 million miles in space."
- "Only a small part of 'The Brookings Report' dealt
with alien encounter. But it contained a stern warning."