Monday, July 26, 2010

First Contact: A Lack of Planning

The online magazine Slate has chimed in on First Contact protocol, or lack thereof. The recent article is a breezy swipe at the issue. It raises the point that such a potentially history making event might be worth a little bit of planning.

Seth Shostak seems to agree that there is not much depth in even the SETI First Contact protocol. In his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter Shostak shows just how far the protocol goes and where it breaks down. It provides a framework for SETI researchers to consider in the event an extraterrestrial signal is detected. But it is quite vague when it reaches the governmental level. Some bloggers have suggested that NASA has a plan of notification that is kept under wraps, however according to these writers even this appears to be a simple phone tree of sorts.

Understandably NASA and most other researchers are more concerned with what we should do if we find exobiology in a crude and simple form. How should tests be conducted? Should samples be taken back to Earth for study? Do we risk contaminating other worlds with our microbes? The issue of forward and back contamination was first raised in part by Joshua Lederberg.The issue even led to an international agreement regarding the sterilization of spacecraft when returning to Earth.

I digress.

The question of First Contact planning, and in reality even SETI research, comes down to money. Shostak shares in his book an interaction he had with Dutch researchers at a conference. He asked how much money it was worth to search for extraterrestrial civilizations. The practical Dutch scientists wouldn’t even agree to a guilder (less than a dollar) a year being spent on such trivial pursuits. That was ten years ago and hopefully times have changed. SETI researchers appear to have achieved a small degree of respect in the scientific community.

I think most of us agree that wasting money to consider First Contact planning would be a mistake, given the fact that humans are dying for want of simple life-saving technology and medicine. Would it not be possible for the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to convene a volunteer working group on the matter? The United Nations would seem to be the body that needs the most help in First Contact planning. It is hard to believe that First Contact diplomacy would fall to an individual nation or a lone scientific group. Ultimately the UN would have to be charged with the responsibility of diplomacy and response, as it is the only body that represents the entire planet. Even a rough draft of ideas for the United Nations to consider in case of First Contact would be a start.

Perhaps the UN has already taken such steps and I am unaware. I know that many research oriented conferences have touched on the issue. The ideas brought forth in these conferences are probably insightful and yet without any organization. We are still lacking a cohesive package that could actually help if First Contact occurs.

This is a call for OOSA Director Mazlan Othman to take action. She has attended several conferences that have explored First Contact issues. It makes sense that her office would lead an active, if albeit cheap, effort to provide a basic framework for governmental and diplomatic response to First Contact. It’s a highly unlikely occurrence with a massive potential impact. It is time to act.

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