Monday, October 26, 2009

Baking the Visitors

Direct First Contact: An extraterrestrial civilization lands on planet Earth to say hello. Once that craft lands scientists at NASA will be a little antsy. NASA protocol calls for a very different welcome than popular fiction might have imagined. NASA scientists would quarantine the craft. Dressed in biohazard suits they would swab the space craft to check for extraterrestrial microbes. Then they would probably like to bake the spacecraft in an oven at 233 degrees Fahrenheit. Doesn’t sound like a very friendly welcome does it?

It’s an interesting dilemma addressed in a recent article on The NASA procedures are used to decontaminate our spacecraft returning from outer space adventures. The concern is “back contamination” the process by which extraterrestrial microbes might hitch a ride back to Earth on one of our spacecraft. It’s been a concern since the 1960’s with the Outer Space Treaty, which specifically stated that space exploration must avoid bio contamination.

So, what about “forward contamination? How do we handle an extraterrestrial visit? Well, first of all you would imagine that extraterrestrial visitors would be just as concerned as we are with the threat of biological contamination, going in either direction. What’s more you would expect a certain amount of caution by extraterrestrial visitors for their immediate safety. Even if they could survive in our atmosphere, it would be hard to predict what biological situations could arise if they are exposed to Earth. Would they pre-bake their spacecraft? Would they reassure us that there is nothing to be concerned with? Would they wear their own bio suits to protect against exposure?

It comes down to one question: Can we trust extraterrestrial visitors to do the right thing? I think the NASA answer would be no. Once aliens hit our atmosphere we need to protect ourselves by making sure they are contaminate free. The knee-jerk response by NASA, and probably the military at NASA request, would be to quarantine the visiting spacecraft, keep the public away, and do extensive tests before we would even let them crack the hatch. The actual presence of extraterrestrials would probably step that process up several more levels on the anxiety meter.

If you’re an alien who didn’t want to deal with all of this there is one simple solution: don’t land in the United States. For that matter don’t land in China, Russia or even France. Any country with an active space exploration program would be likely to respond the same way in regards to extraterrestrial bio hazards. If I was an extraterrestrial wanting to save myself the hassle I would land in Nigeria: somewhere that would have a much less organized response and probably be unlikely to immediately call on NASA or another foreign organization into the country to examine the aliens.

But is that really in the extraterrestrial self-interest? There are plenty of downsides to landing in a less organized country. Your safety is at risk if the government cannot control the public. You set an odd note of welcome. And in the end the United Nations would probably demand such a biological response anyway. With enough pressure just about any country would eventually cave into world concern.
Landing in a country with an organized space exploration effort has some advantages. The response can be immediate and testing can be done quickly and effectively, and by people who know what they are doing. NASA scientists have considered the possibilities of First Contact and would also be more likely to understand the diplomacy needed at such a critical moment. That balance between diplomacy and scientific caution is the key. There is no doubt that NASA, or whatever national space exploration agency is given the task, would need to respond quickly. However, they can do their tests in a way that is non-confrontational and not disruptive to the larger diplomatic effort. Sure, let’s ask the aliens to stay put for a while so that Earth scientists can do some tests. Perhaps set up a biological protection zone of a few hundred yards and have constant monitoring of the air. When it comes time for the extraterrestrial visitors to emerge from the ship there needs to be an established system for reducing bio risks. It is likely there will be many such considerations when it comes to aliens stepping foot on Earth.

First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization presents all sorts of hazards and challenges. We would be foolish not to protect ourselves at every step. However we can do so in a way that is transparent, diplomatic and friendly. NASA doesn’t need to clear out a five mile radius, remove the media and declare a public emergency. It’s up to our federal leaders, or the leaders of whatever nation the extraterrestrials may choose for First Contact, to be level headed and diplomatic. They must assume direct control over the situation and not allow scientists or the military to run roughshod. Balance is the key.

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