In regards to human contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, the Royal Society has just made a important contribution to the conversation. They held a meeting earlier this month and from it a series of papers have been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
The title of the issue, and the meeting, sums it up: “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.”
The topics focus foremost on issues of astrobiology, and yet there is some attention paid to the implications of First Contact for the human race.
The biggest newsmaker may be the discussion piece by Dr. Mazlan Othman, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), simply titled “Supra-Earth affairs.”
Finally, finally we have a solid argument for United Nations leadership in First Contact. It has been a long-time coming and Dr. Othman is to be credited for this brave and sensible call to action.
She takes an oblique and almost administrative approach in stating her case. Dr. Othman writes about a 1977 United Nations discussion of extraterrestrial issues. After a wide-ranging set of discussions, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) asked the Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) to compile a report to examine “Messages to extraterrestrial civilizations.” No further action was taken.
Dr. Othman seems to be staking out a claim for the OOSA to take up new matters of extraterrestrial consideration. She ties this to more recent work in regards to near-Earth objects (NEOs). This is a more familiar subject (the dangers of asteroids and wayward satellites) that is the subject of much of the work by the OOSA. A group of United Nations member states requested an action plan be developed on the issue, with the focus being ways to build international cooperation and a response to possible threats. A working group drafted a year-by-year plan with specific objectives for each year. Those objectives included information gathering, mission planning and the formation of an oversight group. The plan was followed through, making recommendations and taking specific actions. The ultimate oversight group was determined to be the powerful United Nations Security Council.
In true diplomatic fashion, Dr. Othman finishes her examination of the NEO United Nations process with one simple paragraph. It is a simple plea for applying those past strategies to the issue of extraterrestrial First Contact and subsequent communication.
“We should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The United Nations forums are a ready-made mechanism for such coordination. To make this happen, the champions of this subject must engage a wider audience, especially Member States of COPUOS, which would allow the subject to be included in the agenda of COPUOS and from this platform take it further to the General Assembly.”
This seemingly humble suggestion is actually a bold statement given the flak Dr. Othman endured late last year, when a U.K. media report suggested that she was proposing that she should be spokesperson for the planet Earth in relations with any extraterrestrial civilizations. That report was compiled from leaked information about the relatively tame proposal put forth at the Royal Society meeting. In reality, Dr. Othman is merely calling for the United Nations to take a central role in any First Contact protocol. The media has had its fun, twisting the reports to ever-more absurd suggestions. To her credit, Dr. Othman is not giving up on the issue, and I for one salute her for the professional courage she has taken in putting together this paper and attending the meeting despite the criticism.
United Nations leadership on this issue is the only practical solution to a real dilemma. We have not prepared, we are not prepared, and the implications for the human race could not be more profound. It is time the world listened more closely to Dr. Othman. It is time the United Nations took action.