You are on page 1of 2


Keeping the ETs Away

On the Cover
NASA sent Space Shuttle astronauts into orbit three
years ago to fix the ailing, blurry-eyed Hubble Space
Telescope (HST). Since then, HST has been churning out remarkable images and landmark discoveries.
So why is another shuttle heading for a rendezvous
with the telescope this month? To make a great observatory even better! Astronauts aboard Discovery
will replace two of the telescopes original scientific
instruments with new, state-of-the-art detectors. Beginning on page 42 crew member Steven A. Hawley, who will use Discoverys robotic arm to capture
HST as pictured here, provides an insiders preview
of the second Hubble servicing mission. Artwork by
Scott Kahler, courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

Sky & Telescope February 1997

ONFIRMATION that planets are time travel seems impossible today. But
indeed orbiting nearby stars, com- science fiction has a way of coming true.
pelling evidence that water and Whatever the human mind can imagine
volcanoes exist on some Jovian satellites, may eventually become possible.
and most recently the news that simple
I am willing to accept that interstellar
forms of life may once have existed (still travel could someday be realized and
exist?) on Mars are truly revolutionary thats precisely why I maintain that any
developments in astronomy. Meanwhile, effort to communicate with extraterrestrimarine biologists have discovered a third al life is fraught with grave danger! H. G.
basic form of organism that thrives in the Wellss War of the Worlds may yet be
ocean depths under conditions utterly un- proved prophetic. We should be worried
like those on land, deriving energy from not just with asteroid impacts and supercarbon dioxide, sulfur, and hydrogen.
nova explosions, nor just with the chance
With these recent revelations at both arrival of some Andromeda strain or incosmic and microscopic scales, exobiol- compatible gene borne by a Martian meogy the marriage of astronomy and teorite. What should arouse our concern
biology is becoming an active science. is the very nature of life itself.
It is not too soon to consider the imLets reflect on the history of interplications. The rush of
actions among beings
discovery should softon Earth. Throughout
terrestrial history, even doubts that beings
Interstellar travel could
ery contact of one civexist on other planets
someday be realized
ilization with another,
and that some may
human or otherwise,
have evolved into adand thats precisely
has ultimately resultvanced societies. I bewhy any effort to comed in the ascendancy
lieve that, instead of a
municate with extraterof one and the subpleasant surprise, this
jugation, exploitation,
latter prospect should
restrial life is fraught
and even exterminabe an occasion for sewith grave danger!
tion of the other.
rious concern.
Even superficial difConsider, for examferences among the
ple, the boost all this
activity on the exobiology front has al- human races owing to skin color, reliready given to the search for extraterres- gious beliefs, memories of long-ago contrial intelligence. When and if this search flicts have triggered tragic clashes.
Given the amazing variety of life forms
succeeds, idealists will grow eloquent and
promoters of space travel will lobby for here on Earth, we can be certain (despite
more money. I can hear them now.
Star Trek) that extraterrestrial beings will
Imagine the benefits that will result if be utterly unlike us in form but not in
only we can establish communication, their innate contempt for other beings.
they will say, arguing that extraterrestri- Just as on Earth, each life form will reals (ETs) capable of communicating with gard every other as inferior and, thereus will, in all probability, not only be fore, legitimate prey.
more advanced technologically but also
For example, consider our interaction
have reached a utopian state that they with bees. They have a remarkable civilization a model communistic society.
will eagerly share with us.
And, of course, with a civilization so Every individual in the highly organized
advanced, the ETs may even have hive knows its place and unselfishly does
learned how to overcome the immense what it is capable of doing. Ages ago,
barriers of space and time that separate while evolving the means for producing
us! they will enthuse. How wonderful it food, bees solved advanced problems in
will be to meet them face to face, to ex- geometry, material science, engineering,
and biochemistry. And what have we
change ideas, and to learn from them!
Cooler-headed physicists will counter humans learned from contact between
that even a meaningful dialogue is impos- our two civilizations? With our superior
sible, since neither material objects nor technology, we steal the honey the bees
messages can travel faster than light itself. work so hard to produce!
The starry-eyed will reply, Yes, spaceFortunately, at present no other life
1996 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


form on Earth is capable of subjugating

us though bacteria and viruses are trying hard and may yet succeed.
But, the idealists will argue, being so
much more advanced technologically, the
ETs will have evolved into benign beings.
Having mastered the struggle for existence, they will have no need of martial
arts, nor will they need any of our resources. And with no history of past conflict with us, they will look upon us kindly
and help us to solve our problems.
I grant these dreamers one point: any
alien race able to contact us now is probably more advanced. But I do not agree
that technical superiority guarantees benevolence. (Germany was the most technologically and scientifically advanced
nation in the world when it launched
World War I.) Nor do I concede that predation and exploitation are exclusively
human traits. They are characteristic of all
life, indelible genetic imprints that ensure
some species will survive. Ants wage war
with other ants, they exploit aphids, and
we try to exterminate both.
We must also recognize the potential
value to the ETs of Earth itself. It seems
quite possible to me that a more highly
advanced society, having exhausted its
own sources of some rare element not
yet depleted here, would want to commandeer our planet and lay claim to
such resources.
The fact that we are light-years away
from the nearest stars may give a false
sense of security. For centuries Britain
was isolated from the Continent by the
English Channel, and the United States
by two oceans, but new technologies
overcame those barriers. With admirable

foresight, some leaders realized that

through those breached barriers would
come predators bent on destroying an
indigenous way of life. Over the objections of idealists, they prepared defenses
and ultimately resisted the threat but
at great cost in lives and resources.
History and biology agree in telling us
that if any good could come from confrontation with an extraterrestrial society,
it would most likely be the uniting of discordant human societies to deal with a
common threat. In the past we usually
postponed preparation for conflict until
confrontation was inevitable. It would be
unwise to be unprepared for an extraterrestrial confrontation but how would
we divine the nature of our adversaries or
their purposes and methods?
It is time to ask: Will the vast distances
between stars always guarantee our safety as we continue to confront the many
problems and tensions that exist here on
Earth? When and if physical contact
with extraterrestrial life becomes possible, is there any guarantee that we,
rather than the ETs, will be the dominant life form or will a few of us be
consigned to a cosmic zoo while the rest
are destroyed? To me, these unanswered
concerns challenge the wisdom of advertising our presence by beaming radio,
television, and telemetry into space, and
by attaching find us here road maps to
our interplanetary spacecraft.
Baldwin is a retired physicist and nuclear
engineer who continues to research gamma-ray
lasers. He now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
and can be reached via e-mail at 75000.221@

1996 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

February 1997 Sky & Telescope