Summary: The U.S. and other world governments already have detailed secret plans for first contact.
When UFOs land, a series of plans created to deal with nuclear
emergencies and biological attacks will be activated.
Within the scientific community, the question is no longer
whether extraterrestrial life exists, but if ET is smart enough
to do long division. Scientists are of two minds regarding the
existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Skeptics acknowledge
simple life-forms might be found on other planets, but insist
that intelligent life is unique to Earth. Their belief is based
on the assumption that Earth possesses unique physical
attributes, including a magnetic field that deflects cosmic rays
and a moon that absorbs asteroids. Together, these protective
features make Earth a rare safe harbor--one that nurtured the
evolution of primitive life-forms into intelligent beings. The
opposing camp sees the prospect for discovering alien life in
more mathematical terms. Its touchstone is the Drake Equation,
which links the probability of discovering extraterrestrial
intelligence to factors such as the size of the universe and the
number of stars with earthlike planets. With the discovery of
each new planet beyond Earth's solar system--there are now more
than 100--the odds of encountering intelligent alien life
increase. Governments and international organizations around the
world have taken notice of the changing odds. No governmental
official has gone on record claiming that UFOs are real, let
alone a threat. Yet with little public fanfare, they have begun
preparing for the single most important event in human history:
first contact. That is, the moment earthlings discover
incontrovertible proof that they are not alone.
Unless ET materializes from another dimension in the middle of
the Super Bowl, humans most likely will have some advance
warning of its arrival. How much time we get to straighten up
for extraterrestrial company depends upon who spots ET first.
The privately funded SETI Institute uses radio telescopes owned
by observatories around the world to sweep the sky for signals
broadcast by advanced civilizations. If ET has read Emily Post,
or her intergalactic equivalent, and calls ahead, we could have
years, even decades, to prepare for first contact.
Unfortunately, the current SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence) project can afford to look at only small swatches
of the sky, so any extraterrestrial courtesy calls probably will
A more likely scenario is that the U.S. Air Force would spot
ET's spacecraft as it traverses the void between the Earth and
the moon. Using powerful radar and optical telescopes in Hawaii,
Greenland, Florida and the Indian Ocean, the Air Force Space
Command tracks satellites, monitors missile launches, and spots
baseball- and larger-size bits of orbiting debris with the hope
of preventing it from perforating a space shuttle or the
International Space Station. If ET turns up on Space Command's
radar, it would mean the alien visitors are only hours or
The giant radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been the
backbone of the SETI project for 20 years.
A Proposed Welcoming Committee
Photos by Peter Menzel (Eric Drexler), Don Milici (Jane
Goodall), Phillip Gentry (Ning Li), NASA (John Glenn), courtesy
of MIT (Sheila E. Widnall), courtesy of SETI Institute (Frank
Drake), courtesy of Earthtech International, Inc. (Hal Puthoff)
The International Academy of Astronautics in Paris maintains a
list of volunteers willing to help world governments if ET
arrives. Most are astronomers. Here is the team that PM would
prefer to see on the job. Shown counterclockwise from the center
are: Sen. John Glenn, American Representative. As the first
American to orbit the Earth and an elected political leader, the
senator is the obvious choice to lead the American delegation.
Frank Drake, Science Officer. Creator of the Drake Equation and
a driving force behind the SETI project, Drake would represent
the world's scientific community. Hal Puthoff, Powerplant
Engineering. An expert on zero-point energy, a means of
extracting limitless power from the quantum vacuum without
violating the known laws of physics, Puthoff would understand
how ET powers its craft.
Sheila E. Widnall, Weapons Systems. A Massachusetts Institute of
Technology professor who served as Secretary of the Air Force in
the 1990s, Widnall would be able to assess ET's weapons. Ning
Li, Propulsion Systems. A former NASA scientist, Li devised the
theory that explains how the electromagnetic force that we use
every day might also be harnessed to manipulate gravity. Perhaps
ET uses similar technology. K. Eric Drexler, Structural Systems.
A trailblazer in the now fast-growing field of nanotechnology--
building materials atom by atom--Drexler pioneered the idea of
smart materials, which ET would doubtlessly also use in its
craft. Jane Goodall, Communications Officer. Having devoted her
life to the study of chimpanzees, primatologist Goodall has
proved her ability to communicate with intelligent nonhumans.
Countdown To Contact
The broad-brush outline for Earth's response to the first alien
encounter is set out in an international agreement called the
"Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the
Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Written by a
committee of scientists organized by the SETI Institute, the
declaration spells out what astronomers should do, and what they
should avoid doing, immediately after first contact.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agreement is that
astronomers who sign on to the declaration agree to keep the
news of an imminent contact under their hat until the astronomy
community and authorities have been notified.
The declaration also establishes fairly specific guidelines
regarding the protection of the radio frequencies that alien
civilizations might use to communicate with Earth. As soon as a
radio signal is confirmed as originating from an
extraterrestrial source, the International Telecommunications
Union would ask governments around the world to forbid use of
that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is hoped that
ET will have sufficiently studied human habits to understand
that calling earthlings on the frequencies used for microwave
ovens and garage door openers will be interpreted as a
Around 1999 the first contact protocols were put to the test.
For 12 hours, SETI astronomers marveled at the prospect that
their golden moment had arrived. A signal that repeated in an
organized pattern was detected beaming straight at the Earth
from 1 million miles in space.
The first priority was to alert radio astronomers around the
world to redirect their telescopes. The signal from the distant
stationary object quickly faded as the relentless rotation of
the Earth swept it out of the telescope's listening range.
Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's social scientist
responsible for preparing Earth's reply to an extraterrestrial
message, tells POPULAR MECHANICS what happened next: "At this
point, all of our discussions were internal to our team. We
didn't want to cry wolf. Then, in the midst of the process, we
get a call from The New York Times." So much for the secrecy
provision of the SETI protocol. Within hours, the story
evaporated. The SETI team identified the mystery signal as a
data transmission from SOHO, a sun-watching observatory on an
almost-stationary orbit about 1 million miles from Earth.
Vakoch says he was not surprised that the story of the possible
alien contact leaked so quickly. "These guidelines have no legal
force. They have been drafted in the hope of getting broader
As far as the U.S. government is concerned, that discussion
started and ended more than 40 years ago. Regardless of how the
world's astronomy community might want to handle first contact,
Uncle Sam has ideas of his own. And they rest on the assumption
that ET is first and foremost an illegal alien.
The question of how humanity might react to its first contact
with intelligent aliens was officially raised in the late 1950s
by the then newly created National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA). Curious as to how discoveries about the
origin of the universe might affect society as a whole, NASA
contracted with the Brookings Institution, a leading think tank,
to research the question. Only a small part of its 100-page
answer, which came to be known as "The Brookings Report," dealt
with alien encounter. But it contained a stern warning.
"Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure
of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when
they had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies
espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that
survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price
of changes in values and attitudes and behavior."
In 1972, as engineers prepared the first space mission that
would travel outside of Earth's solar system, NASA decided to
ignore warnings in the 1960 "Brookings Report" about the dangers
inherent in contact with an advanced alien race. Instead, the
space agency sent an invitation for extraterrestrials to visit
Earth. A gold-anodized aluminum plaque engraved with a map
showing the location of Earth was attached to the Pioneer 10
spacecraft. When it sent its last message, in January 2003, it
was more than 7 billion miles along on a trip that will take it
to the star Aldebaran.
Operating on the assumption that a craft with no exhaust stream
must be nuclear powered, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team
(NEST) would be mobilized to secure an alien aircraft.
State Of Emergency
If ET turns up at NASA's doorstep bearing that invitation, it is
in for a surprise. Instead of getting a handshake from the head
of NASA, it will be handcuffed by an FBI agent dressed in a
Biosafety Level 4 suit. Instead of sleeping in the Lincoln
Bedroom at the White House, the alien will be whisked away to
the Department of Agriculture's Animal Disease Center on Plum
Island, off the coast of New York's Long Island. Here it will be
poked and probed by doctors from the National Institutes of
Health. A Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Emergency Search
Team (NEST) will tow away its spacecraft.
Unfriendly as this welcome may seem, it is the chain of events
that most likely will follow the visitor's arrival. Unique as
the appearance of an alien-piloted spacecraft may be, the event
incorporates elements of three situations familiar to federal
emergency response workers: a plane crash, the release of
radioactive material, and the capture of an animal suspected of
harboring a contagious disease. Responsibilities in these
situations are spelled out in Presidential Executive Orders.
Unless it is spewing exhaust, the craft would be assumed to be
nuclear powered. This determination would put NEST technicians
in charge of securing the craft and moving it to a DOE facility,
most likely in New Mexico, where it would be in close proximity
to the Sandia and Los Alamos nuclear laboratories and the White
Sands Missile Range. International agreements also put NEST on
call if the craft lands out of the United States, as happened in
1978 when a Soviet satellite leaking nuclear fuel landed in the
NEST, however, would operate in the background. In a nuclear
emergency, the FBI is put in charge of public safety, public
health and public information. Those, at least, are the plans.
How things might actually turn out is anyone's guess.
Skeptics often ask why UFO sightings seem to take place only in
remote locations instead of on busy city streets. Perhaps ET
knows what earthlings have in mind when it lands.
Nonhuman but alive, ET would likely be legally classified as an
animal and quarantined in a Biosafety Level 4facility (above) on
Plum Island (below). PHOTO BY AP/WIDEWORLD PHOTOS