Monday, April 18, 2011

A Suggestion: The Next Fifty for COPUOS

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of manned space flight. The achievement still brings a sense of awe to many of us. The United Nations marked the occasion with a celebration of sorts. I found the UN news release interesting, because it notes that this year also marks fifty years for the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The committee works to develop the rules that define activities in outer space. There are plenty of pressing matters when it comes to outer space activities: the threat of Near Earth Objects (NEOs), the danger of weapons in Earth orbit, and the accumulation of space junk. I don’t want to infer that the group does not have enough to work on, but there is something they are missing: a clear framework for diplomacy in the event of First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.

Argue what you will about SETI protocols and alleged secret NASA contingency plans, there is nothing that I have seen that outlines who should be in charge of diplomacy in a First Contact event. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) folks have done a good job in defining what should occur in case of a SETI discovery. However, the protocols stop well short of the diplomatic process. And when you think about it, that need for diplomacy could come up in the variety of situations. Perhaps it’s a question of humans sending messages deep into space. Shouldn’t there by a world body charged with determining if that should happen at all and, if so, what message should be sent? Instead, we hold Internet contests to determine those messages.

The most serious need would arise if we did have communication with an extraterrestrial civilization. Even if those messages take dozens of years to travel back and forth over light years of space, there should be an organized process for coming up with our answers, and perhaps more importantly, our questions. Science should certainly be at the forefront of such a conversation, but diplomacy needs to lead the way.

So, COPUOS, happy birthday to you. I suggest that after blowing out the candles you give some serious thought to the next 50 years. The Kepler Mission is turning up potential planets by the spacecraft-load. SETI scientists have new computer firepower that allows them to process data like never before. How long will it be before we hit the big one and find out that we are not alone in the universe? 

I firmly believe that the United Nations is the organization that should be tasked with First Contact diplomacy. It is the only body that represents most humans, in most countries on Earth. COPUOS, and the corresponding United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), are the natural organizations to handle such diplomacy. UNOOSA Director Mazlan Othman took a great deal of flak recently from the media when she merely suggested that COPUOS examine First Contact issues. It’s time to get beyond the snickering and face the facts: we are not ready for First Contact. We have done little to prepare. The impact of such an event would be enormous. Human civilization would be changed forever. Isn’t it worth a few moments of serious thought?

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