If Extraterrestrials Call, Does Humanity Have a Plan?

“In 1997, we got a signal that looked pretty promising for most of the day. We thought it was possibly the real deal,” Shostak said. “I kept waiting for the ‘Men in Black’ to show up — they didn’t. I kept waiting for the Pentagon to call. I kept waiting for the White House to call. They didn’t call. But The New York Times called.”

Close encounters

In a review of the science and speculations about extraterrestrials, published as “Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence and Civilization” in 1979, the author and scientist Robert Freitas described a purported military briefing in Washington, D.C., in 1950 that outlined potential U.S. military responses to alien contact.

The supposed military plan, which became known as “Seven Phases to Contact,” was first reported in a 1967 book on UFOs by the American broadcaster and UFO researcher Frank Edwards.

But Shostak said he has seen no sign of any extraterrestrial action plan for U.S. government agencies or the military. “As far as I know, there’s nothing, and I think I would have heard something because of the [SETI] false alarms,” he said.

While detecting an alien radio signal would be different from encountering spaceships that landed on Earth, Shostak doesn’t think protocols will play a big part in how we respond.

“Some people asked me at a conference last week, ‘What plan does the military have to deal with aliens should they land?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know … but to the best of my knowledge, they don’t have a plan.

‘”Shostak noted that any aliens who could travel here in a spacecraft would need to be centuries or thousands of years more technologically advanced than humans are now, so it’s almost impossible to imagine the consequences of contact between the species, let alone the thought of developing a plan to deal with them.

“It would be like the Neanderthals having a plan in case the U.S. Air Force showed up,” he said.

Calling planet Earth

Although the aliens in “Arrival”helpfully travel to Earth in faster-than-light spaceships, willing and ready to talk, Shostak said a more likely “first contact” scenario would be the detection of a seti radio signal, perhaps from a source hundreds or thousands of light-years away.

That means it could take centuries for the aliens to receive any reply transmitted from Earth in an effort to communicate with them, he said. As such, there might not be any real hurry to decide what to say.

And if E.T. does call, what should humans say in response? Some scientists, including British physicist Stephen Hawking, have expressed concern about “Active SETI” programs designed to transmit messages from Earth to any aliens that might be listening. Hawking warned of the potential threat posed by unknown extraterrestrials and their alien motivations.

There’s also the difficult matter of making the right first impression in any extraterrestrial chat, Shostak said.

“I’ve been to several conferences where people discuss whether we should tell [aliens] all the bad things about humanity, or just the good things, and that sort of thing,” he said. “But I think that is terribly overdrawn. To me, that would be like the indigenous people of Australia seeing Capt. Cook coming over the horizon in his ship, then saying, ‘We’re going to have a couple of conferences to discuss what we’re going to talk to these guys about, and what language we’ll use’ — [but] it doesn’t matter.”

Tom Metcalfe, Live Science Contributor

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