Would NASA Tell Us About Alien Contact?

brookings-smallHumans don’t always have the most rational or measured responses to technological innovation or even change. This isn’t recent revelation about people; NASA knew this very early in its history and also knew it would have to consider the impacts space exploration would have on the wider American public. And so, in 1959, the agency contracted public policy organization the Brookings Institution to design a long-term research program into the social, economic, political, legal, and international implications of space exploration. And also what to do if it found alien life.

The so-called Brookings report, properly titled “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs,” was delivered to NASA’s Committee on Long-Range Studies in November of 1960. Rather than give the agency answers, the report was designed to help develop a long-term research program into the impact of space exploration. Areas of consideration included communications systems, weather predicting systems, space industry, and foreign policy. The final section dealt specifically with the public’s “attitudes and values.”

“The exploration of space requires vast investments of money, men, material, and creative effort — investments which could be profitably applied also to other areas of human endeavor, and which may not be so applied if space activities overly attract the available resources, inspirations, and aspirations. Hence, there is a pressing need to examine carefully the claimed benefits and goals and the possible consequences and problems of space  activities both in relation to their implications for social institutions  and in relation to other potentially competing endeavors also.aimed at benefitting man’s lot.” 

The consideration for NASA was rooted in the intricate relationship between the public and national policies regarding an innovation’s integration into society — think a spinoff from space exploration that might benefit the American everyman even if he’s resistant to change. It was thus, according to the report’s authors, important to understand the public’s social and living patterns so reactions to innovations can be anticipated and planned for, at least in part. The policy-makers and national leaders were advised to consider how significant an engine for social change space exploration could be; nothing on this scale had ever been done.

The section begins by considering the role of space going forward. At this point in 1960, the authors identify two possible paths: space could continue to be a national focus, or it could not. The fate is tied to the Cold War. Should the conflict take a turn towards economics, the authors suspect the Soviets would prioritize their own social programs and leave space as a uniquely American pursuit. On the other hand, the report acknowledges the powerful propaganda opportunities of a space program and suggest that regardless of the Cold War’s path both nations would keep their programs alive for the sake of scoring psychological victories.

So assuming space remains a focus for both nations, the authors address the cost and how space exploration will eventually fit into the greater scheme of national interests. The risk, they write, is that too much emphasis on space could lead to an “all-out space effort” without a lasting program. It’s vital to create a program that works hand-in-hand with America’s interests at large. “If… we insist that out space program is for peaceful purposes, every effort must be made to insure that this image is not embarrassed.”

But there’s more to consider than just the nation as a whole because there are “special publics” that bear some consideration. Specifically, the authors highlight military personnel, the scientific community, and politicians as each of these groups will have a different relationship with any space developments.

Among scientists, those in the space community will undoubtedly be the most excited by new discoveries, but it might be worrisome if members start to see “politicians and promoters” taking their discoveries out of context for the sake of personal promotion and gain. This, the authors warn, could lead to experts leaving the field out of dissatisfaction. It thus falls to NASA to think through how scientists’ work will be disseminated to the public to keep the best minds firmly in the space program.

Another special group the report highlights is astronauts; at the time in 1960 this was a never-before-seen subgroup of the population. Before sending these men into space, be it orbit or to a neighbouring body, NASA ought to understand them and their relationship with the public. The Mercury Astronauts were lauded as heroes before even flying in space, so they clearly captured the imagination of the public. But it could be that this media attention would eventually give the astronauts a “hero syndrome,” causing them to take unnecessary risks. And knowing that the public will look up to these men it’s vital the agency be clear on the very real dangers of spaceflight.

But it’s conceivable the public’s love affair with astronauts might not last. The authors write: “Although the physical requirements for an astronaut probably will be compatible with the preferred Americans image of masculinity, the psychological characteristics appropriate for long flights through space, alone or in compact quarters with others, may be incompatible.” As the archetype of the “perfect astronaut” changes, the public may not identify with him as much, making space less appealing and harder to sell to the public and congressional leaders funding the agency.

The authors extend this same emotional relationship with space and astronauts to business executives. The current (in 1960) romance of spaceflight might lead some to fund technology programs while others might take foolhardy risks in their own rights because space exploration will make anything seem possible. Likewise, children are another group whose relationship with astronauts and space will be important in the long term. Those born around the time of Sputnik’s launch will never know a world without space meaning it will be part of their consciousness as they grow into adults voting on policy issues and entering the work force, ultimately shaping the nation’s future.

Across all these populations, the takeaway for NASA is that managing expectations is important.  Public optimism about space will likely breed support for programs going forward, the report says, but if projects take too long to complete or don’t yield all positive results people may become disillusioned. “If glamorous projects are not successful at the time they are supposed to be… the public state of mind may well make it difficult to obtain future funds for the more expensive efforts.” 

Finally, the Brookings authors address perhaps the most exciting outcome of space exploration: finding alien life. At the time, scientists were using radio telescopes to listen for signals from extraterrestrials. “It is conceivable that there is semi-intelligent life in some part of our solar system [or] in many other solar systems.” It was realistic, then, for the authors, that astronauts might find alien life or artifacts from aliens on the Moon or another planet. And the public would have to be notified.

The authors stress that every individual would have a different reaction based on their own cultural, religious, and social backgrounds, and would also be influenced by their leaders’ interpretation and stance on the news. Those leaders would in turn be influenced by their own pasts and personal beliefs, but risk using the news to benefit their own positions and develop opportunities.

But people might take news of aliens in a good way! The report points out that the “age-old assumption that any stranger is threatening” might unite humanity in the face of an alien civilization, even if it wasn’t a hostile one. Or nations might be divided on how to respond to aliens, leading to further hostility. To this end, the authors urge studying the closest analogue we might have: ancient civilizations suddenly faced with a new society. Historically, some civilizations embraced change to adapt and survive while others disintegrated.

Bearing all this in mind, the authors’ recommendation was for NASA to think through how information about alien life would be shared with the public, or whether it would be better to withhold that information entirely. 

On the whole, the Brookings report urged lateral thinking about space exploration and the public who will be affected by whatever NASA does in space. Many of the recommendations and insights still ring true today, particularly the note about the public’s changing fascination with its astronauts and disillusionment when things don’t go entirely as planned. We seem to have forgotten that space is hard, not just technologically but in getting funding and selling seemingly insane ideas for futuristic space probes. And even though this 1960 report might suggest NASA not tell us about alien life, there are enough non-government agencies working in the same field to confirm the government hasn’t been hiding aliens from us for half a century… sorry, conspiracy theorists!

Sources: The Brookings Report.


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