As readers of Commonplace Fun Facts know, the U.S. military has drawn up plans for war with the United Kingdom, invading Canada, and surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. There are even plans for delivering the mail and collecting taxes while the fallout from World War III drifts across your scorched front yard.
With plans like this, surely someone has thought through what we are supposed to do when we finally answer the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” When an alien spaceship begins its descent through our atmosphere, we could wait it out, hoping the extraterrestrials bring messages of hope, peace, and goodwill. If the history of science fiction is any indication, it is more likely that you truly are related to that member of the Nigerian royal family who is emailing you for your bank account information.
The Seven Phases to Contact
Officially, no government-sanctioned plan has been adopted. Then again, that’s exactly what you would suspect to hear from a government that has been infiltrated by Reptilians and Lizard People. There was, however, an outline for general discussion presented at a joint Army-Navy UFO briefing in Washington, DC in 1950. Known as “The Seven Phases to Contact,” it was first reported in Frank Edwards’ 1967 book Flying Saucers — Here and Now! It was later discussed in “Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence and Civilization” by author and scientist Robert Freitas.
The Seven Phases to Contact was a military response to detecting extraterrestrial intelligence. The two words are abbreviated with the three-letter acronym ETI, unnecessarily complicating things and perhaps slyly emphasizing that intelligence from out there is going to be bigger than anything grown at home. It presumes that we notice E.T. before he notices us. The plan would play out as follows:
Phase One — Detection and Approach
As described in Edwards’ book, Phase One “would take place before we knew whether the planet was inhabited.” In other words, astronomers have spotted a planet that seems suitable for intelligent life. The response to this is surveillance by taking a look from a safe distance.
What that safe distance might be, one can only speculate. The nearest planet unconnected to our solar system thus far detected is Proxima B, in orbit around Proxima Centauri. It is 4.26 light-years, or 25,042,944,089,762 miles (40,302,711,813,194 km) away from us. Presumably, that is a safe distance, but if you feel the need to take a couple of steps backward, no one will think any less of you.
During this surveillance stage, we are to use our scientific instruments to look for signs of radio signals or other indications of intelligence, such as “Baby On Board” bumper stickers on any orbiting Death Stars.
Phase Two — Close-Range Surveillance
Having gathered all the information we can from a safe distance, it’s time to take a few cautious steps closer. Unmanned probes will be sent to take photographs, sample the atmosphere, and try to assess the extent of intelligent civilization.
Again, since the closest potential planet thus far is 4.26 light-years from us, the generation that was responsible for Phase One is long gone. Hopefully, advances in technology will allow for faster deployment of the unmanned probes.
Phase Three — Manned Exploration
If the results of Phase Two suggest there is something or someone there, the next step is to replace the unmanned probes with faster, more maneuverable vessels occupied by a crew of humans. The stated purpose of this phase is to assess the spacecraft (or atmospheric transportation) of the alien civilization.
If extraterrestrial civilizations follow a plan similar to “The Seven Phases to Contact” and have stumbled across Earth, this is the phase that has resulted in the reports of UFOs engaging in games of Tag and Hide-and-Seek with civilian and military aircraft. It might also have prompted President Jimmy Carter to file a UFO-sighting report.
Phase Four — Poke the Bear
As if Phase Three wasn’t risky enough, Phase Four is where things really get exciting. This is the point where we start making intentional near approaches of radar locations and military centers to determine whether the aliens are hostile.
We’re not sure this part has really been thought through. If anyone showed up here at earth and immediately made a bee-line to our radar and military bases, wouldn’t that be an instant indication to us of their hostile intent? We suspect the authors of this plan were not chosen because of their interpersonal skills.
Phase Five — Collection
The movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial is premised on a benevolent alien being left on earth during a mission to collect plant samples. E.T.’s planet was engaged in Phase Five at that point. It involves landing on the planet’s surface for brief periods to secure specimens of plants and animals. If possible, we are also to collect samples of intelligent life.
We can only hope that alien civilization is a lot more forgiving than we are. At this point, we can add kidnapping to our list of offenses. If buzzing their military bases didn’t set them off, abducting their citizens will likely do the trick.
Of course, we could follow the same strategy apparently employed by our extraterrestrial visitors. We could selectively abduct those who sound crazy and disoriented to begin with, so when we return them and they tell their stories, everyone will assume they imagined the whole thing.
Phase Six — Approach and Hover
After assessing all the information we have collected to date, we are now faced with a choice: return home and leave this planet alone or initiate direct contact. If we decide to make contact, we are to begin with a series of landings and low-level approaches, where our vehicles and crew can be seen by the greatest number of inhabitants. It is important that we be seen, but not reached. The planners reason that if this is carried out successfully, this would demonstrate our non-hostile nature.
Again, we’re not sure these planners have truly thought this through. From the perspective of the natives of this alien planet, they have been dealing with reports of strange aircraft dodging their vessels. Then there were increasing incidents of extraterrestrial ships buzzing their military installations and radar facilities. A number of their citizens have been abducted. Now, having thoroughly spooked the entire planet, these mysterious, mischievous visitors from another planet have strategically placed their ominous vessels directly over the major population centers and are just hovering there, silently.
Yeah… Sounds like the actions of a non-hostile bunch of friendly aliens to us, too.
Phase Seven — Overt Contact
Having won over the hearts and minds of the planet below, we formally engage the alien race. The planners stress that this is not to be done unless we have concluded that overt contact would not be disastrous to either of the races involved.
Because just leaving the planet after progressing through all of the prior six phases won’t be at all traumatic for anyone.
SETI’s Protocols for Contact
The Seven Phases to Contact assume we are the first to notice an alien race. Has anyone thought through what we should do if E.T. starts calling us?
Let’s set aside for a moment the thought that E.T. is already here and is engaging in its own version of the Seven Phases to Contact. At least, let’s pray that they aren’t doing that since the whole approach is fuel for many future nightmares.
Some scientists speculate that extraterrestrials would try to send us a message before showing up and hovering ominously over our cities. These scientists work for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). They spend their days combing the heavens for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent communication.
In the 1980s, SETI charged its Post-Detection Task Group with the responsibility of making a series of recommendations on what to do if aliens are discovered. The group developed protocols to help scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union share information about any potential SETI signals. The protocols are designed to guide scientists and are not official government responses. The United Nations received a copy of the protocols and filed it away somewhere, in case they need to refer to it in the future.
SETI’s protocols have inspired several non-violent plans. One of these is “A Decision Process for Examining the Possibility of Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations” (click on link to read it). SETI assumes scientists will take the lead from this point. If, however, the military needs to prepare to defend us from attack, there are military-centered responses, such as this one.
The Post-Detection SETI Protocol consists of less than 15 pages. This, in and of itself, should tell is that it is not an official government document. It is about half the size of the Pentagon’s recipe for brownies. It can be summed up, essentially, as, “If you pick up a signal, don’t keep it to yourself, and for goodness sakes, don’t try to answer. Let smarter people take it from there.”
We know from the Official U.S. Military Plan for Dealing With the Zombie Apocalypse that there are some situations where we have to look to Hollywood for inspiration about how to respond. This is true when we do not have enough experience through precedent to guide our planning. Since we have a grand total of zero documented encounters with extraterrestrials, it stands to reason that we will need to look to the movies to help us plan for the day when we find out with certainty that we are not alone in the universe. Based upon our exhaustive study of alien first contact movies, the following is a summary of how SETI’s protocols will play out:
- Someone (again, if Hollywood is to be trusted, it will be some loner with awkward social skills and questionable personal hygiene) will detect signals from an alien civilization. This will likely happen in the middle of the night and involve the spilling of at least one cup of coffee while the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” is playing on the radio.
- This individual will tear himself away from the self-inflicted mental anguish about his inability to speak to girls long enough to call the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union and let them know that E.T. is phoning our home.
- SETI has endorsed the Rio Scale for quantifying the importance of a signal from space. Using the Interactive Rio Scale Calculator, scientists will rate the reported event’s importance between zero (none) and 10 (extraordinary).
- Based upon the Rio Scale rating and the recommendations from scientists, the United Nations will effectively unite all of the governments and craft a single, agreed-upon response.
…. Sorry… We had to step out of the room for a moment to try to hide our laughter. We didn’t mean to imply for a moment that there is anything wrong with this plan. Of course the United Nations will take the lead on this! It has already shown itself to be a model of efficiency, decisiveness, and authority.
- Sadly, the essence of the plan from this point forward can be summed up as ”We’ll make it up as we go.” It concludes that there are two choices about the message we send back: figure it out in advance or don’t. That sounds a lot like our plan for how to pay off student loan debt. Since the protocols lack specificity at this point, we let our informed imaginations take it from here.
- While the U.N. descends into chaos, the leaders of every nation on earth meet with their advisors to come up with a plan to respond. The message they come up with will be needlessly complex and incomprehensible, much like the Arecibo Message that has already been transmitted.
- Meanwhile, a brilliant-but-underachieving teenager will transmit a message, using his home computer, an umbrella, and a Speak-and-Spell (who knew they were still a thing?).
- The extraterrestrials will respond favorably to the teenager.
- In the midst of that historic First Contact, men who wear sunglasses even at night will show up, take the teenager into custody, and snatch an alien diplomat.
- Although the alien was able to interact with the teenager through an ingenious system of Reese’s Pieces, the top government officials will be unable to decipher anything the creature has to say.
- Although the alien is immediately placed in a germ-free, secure environment, it will get sick and die.
- The way the rest of the aliens respond will be directly proportional to how adorable and tearful the aforesaid teenager is perceived. In other words, get ready to cue the song from Step 1: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”