By Miriam Kramer
Humanity should start thinking about how to interact with alien species long before coming into contact with extraterrestrial life, experts say.
Coming up with a strict set of guidelines that govern the way people on future interstellar space missions study and interact with aliens is imperative before anyone blasts off to a distant world, according to attendees at Starship Congress in August.
While a "prime directive" — the rule that prevented Star Fleet officers from interfering with the business of alien life-forms on TV's "Star Trek" — might be a little extreme, such a rule could help govern interactions between aliens and humans. [13 Ways to Contact Intelligent Alien Life]
"In the event that we discover evidence of intelligent life on another world, that will be a social, cultural and technologically influential event to human affairs which will need to be managed with great care and to ensure our culture and their culture remains intact and not disrupted by this new knowledge," Kelvin Long, the founder of Project Icarus, said during a panel on Aug. 16.
People traveling to distant stars will be carrying tangible and intangible aspects of human culture with them, so it should be curated responsibly before being sent to an alien planet, one expert said.
"I think it comes down to how we're going," Armen Papazian, the CEO of the International Space Development Hub, said. "Do we trust that this is a beautiful universe, an incredible cosmos? Do we really believe that it's an amazing landscape, it's a bed of stars? What do we think we're going out there to find and are we going to embrace it or are we going to utilize? Are we trying to export our scarcity economics or are we trying to enjoy the abundant cosmos? … Whatever we are here, we're going to export wherever we go."
It's possible that humans in the future will have no desire to land on exoplanets after free-roaming in space for years at a time, Icarus Interstellar president Richard Obousy said.
"I'm not convinced that when we have the capabilities to build starships … that we'll want to go from one gravitational abyss to another gravitational abyss," Obousy said. "I'm not convinced that settling on planets or even moons is going to be necessary."
Humans can't help but explore and interact with the world around them, Icarus Interstellar's James Benford said during the panel.
"We won't leave them alone," Benford said. "We would like to explore alien ecology extensively to understand if there are any interactions leading to incompatibilities. We would need to establish human research stations to do that because it's a complex problem. It seems unlikely that there would be interference between separately evolved ecologies, especially if we minimize contamination and wear the appropriate suits."
Les Johnson, of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, takes Benford's ideas a little further. Johnson and his group have developed three moral principles that he hopes will serve as a guide for any interactions with all kinds of extraterrestrial life:
- Learn all you can learn before risking any kind of direct interaction
- If it seems to be alive, leave it alone.
- Avoid bringing samples to the home world because it might not be totally incompatible with our ecosystem.
Finding out that a more advanced civilization exists somewhere in the universe could be as jarring for humans around the globe as it was for native peoples when the conquistadors came to North America for the first time, Benford said.
"It wasn't just guns, disease and steel, it was the shock of finding out that you're not even No. 1, you're not even No. 3," Benford said. "That is a thing to really worry about."
In spite of all of these rules, it will be up to the people on the starship to ultimately enforce or do away with whatever rules were in place before they left the planet.
"A vibrant interstellar civilization will be essentially ungovernable, and that observing such guidelines will be strictly left up to each and every first contact team to obey or not obey at their discretion," Johnson said. "When someone is several light-years from home and they've encountered something they never encountered before, they're going to be making the decisions regardless of what the guiding moral principles might have been when they left home."