The Boy Scouts motto of "be prepared" rings true for more challenges on the road of life. But what about those situations we can't know to be prepared for (the "unknown unknowns" in Donald Rumsfeld's paranoid jargon), such as, well, alien invasion? Slate's Juliet Lapidos wonders why we don't actually have an alien-contact contingency plan. "The Chinese government has promised to investigate the unidentified flying object that forced Xiaoshan Airport to delay 18 flights last week," writes Lapidos, qualifying the seemingly campy subject matter of her article. "Tabloids rushed to cover the incident, with the U.K. Sun making a gratuitous 'alien craft' reference, and video footage on YouTube led to numerous comments regarding the existence of extraterrestrial life. What if aliens were to make contact—do we have an E.T. contingency plan?" The U.S. did have a plan, just not a very good one:
Starting in 1947, the Air Force made a formal study of UFOs but stopped investigations in 1969 after having failed to uncover any evidence of extraterrestrial vehicles or of a threat to national security. In 1992, the government paid for a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project through NASA—the Microwave Observing Program's mission was to conduct targeted analyses of nearby stars—but deemed it unworthy of funding one year later. There is, however, a nongovernmental organization established by the International Academy of Astronautics to "prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for … a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin." That organization, the SETI: Post-Detection Taskgroup helmed by the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, has a set of recommendations in place.Should the U.S. cover all their bases and formulate a legitimate "first contact" ops manual?
The protocol, adopted in 1989, is that if someone detects a radio signal seemingly indicating that we're not alone, he should get in touch with SETI researchers, who will help him verify whether the signal is really and truly evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. At that point, he should notify the International Astronomical Union as well as the United Nations and relevant research organizations. On the finders-keepers principle, the discoverer would get to make the first public announcement, but data should be made available to the international scientific community. (Source coordinates, however, would be kept secret, to avoid a situation in which anyone with a radio telescope could start up a conversation.) The next step would be figuring out whether a response signal were warranted and, if so, what message to send—a process that would involve not just scientists but other experts and government appointees. Probably something very simple would be best, like numbers in binary code.