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Are We Ready For Contact?
by Peter Schenkel (email schenkel @
SETI League Regional Coordinator for Ecuador

This is a question few SETI enthusiasts are asking. And yet, it is justified. Thousands and maybe millions of people point their telescopes, or just their eyes, every night to the stars, hoping to receive a signal, or some indication that we are not alone in this vast universe. They share my belief that out there, somewhere, intelligent beings have evolved as we have, against all odds, and that many are probably our peers scientifically and organizationally. That is the tantalizing crux.

Once we establish Contact, how will they view our civilization, beset by so much violence and crisis? What will they say about our chronic incapacity to rid our world of the many isms, which divide instead of unite and which make irrationality and hate triumph over reason? Would they consider us capable and worthy of a mutually beneficial relationship?

I wonder, and sometimes ask myself whether it isn't just as well that Contact has eluded us so far. Maybe their reaction to our political and psychological primitivity would be a terrible shock to us. Maybe it would be much better if Contact occured when our civilization is ripe for it, when we can be proud of all of man's accomplishments, his ethical behavior and peaceful order.

Of course, we may hope that superior extraterrestrials, upon learning our predicaments, might want to extend their help to us. Their scientific and technical wizardry could become the cure to many of our pressing ills. Their wisdom and political experience might help open the eyes of our political elite. But will our statesmen, mediocre as most are and embroiled in political, economic, ethnic and religious quarrels and rivalries, be able to agree to a common and meaningful response, a common friendly welcome and a mutually beneficial relationship? Will they have the humility to listen to and learn from them, to accept their opinions and advice?

So far the national and international establishments have been more than lukewarm, at times -- as in the US -- even hostile to SETI. The declaration of principles of the IAA [the International Academy of Astronautics -- ed.], presented to COPUOS [the UN's Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space -- ed.] in June 2000 with the aim of getting states to agree to a binding post-Contact code of conduct, was filed away and languishes in its archive, where it is likely to rot.

Maybe the time has arrived to enlist a much broader support for SETI from the humanities, religious organizations, the arts, and thinkers of all creeds, to make sure that SETI gets adequately broad international attention and backing representative of mankind, and that mandatory and safe Contact and Communications procedures are agreed upon prior to, not after, Contact is achieved.

If we fail to address this endeavor, I am afraid the scenario I envisioned in my science-fiction novel Contact: Are We Ready For It might come true. A visiting spaceship with aliens that have declared their peaceful intentions stays patiently behind the Moon, waiting for an invitation to land on Earth. But in seven days mankind, gripped by all kinds of taboos and rivalries, is unable to agree to a common and rational response. So the frustrated aliens depart. Humanity goofs the historic chance to meet its brothers from space.

This might also happen with Contact via radio or optical astronomy, if we keep our arms crossed. Let's join ranks and open our vision to the task ahead before it is too late!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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