Image credit: A 1960's Space Station Concept - NASA
Independent American Think-tank The Brookings Institution is rapidly approaching 100 years of operation. Over those years the institution's expert minds have advised on everything from economics to foreign policy. But in 1960, the non-profit organization responded to a request by the recently-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration for advice on the potential ramifications of space exploration.
Headed up by Donald N. Michael, a team from the institution submitted a 186 page document entitled "Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs." The extensive report covered everything from the rise of new space-based industries to the implications the US space program may have on foreign policy. However, one of the most interesting entries is that of the institution's thoughts on the "implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life."
While the report didn't speculate on the possibility of alien visitation, it did consider the ramifications of discovering alien artefacts or the receiving of alien radio signals.
"The knowledge that life existed in other parts of the universe might lead to a greater unity of men on Earth, based on the 'oneness' of man or on the age old assumption that any stranger is threatening," reads the report. "Much would depend on what, if anything, was communicated between man and the other beings: since after the discovery there will be years of silence (because even the closest stars are several light years away, an exchange of radio communication would take twice the number of light years separating our sun from theirs) the fact that such beings existed might simply become tone of the facts of life but probably not one calling for action.
"Whether Earthmen would be inspired to all-out space efforts by such a discovery is a moot question. Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the Universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behaviour.
"Since intelligent life might be discovered at any time via the radio telescope research presently under way...the consequences of such a discovery are presently unpredictably because or behaviour under even an approximation of such dramatic circumstances, two research areas can be recommended:
"...Continuing studies to determine emotional and intellectual understanding and attitudes and successive alterations of them if any -- regarding the possibility and consequence of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life.
"...Historical and empirical studies of the behaviour of peoples and their leaders when confronted with dramatic and unfamiliar events or social pressures. Such studies might help to provide programs for meeting and adjusting to the implications of such a discovery. Questions one might wish to answer by such studies would include: How might such information, under what circumstances be presented to or withheld from the public for what ends? What might be the role of the discovering scientists and other decision makers regarding the release of the fact of discovery?"
This last statement is incredibly interesting. The team from The Brookings Institution was clearly concerned about the dissemination of what would surely be the biggest discovery in our species long history. Their areas of research clearly specify looking into the potential of withholding information from the public and the potential stresses that may pose on those with the information. Such questions have come up many a time in the forums of conspiracy theorists and this document will no doubt add fuel to the flames in their arguments.
But how do these areas of investigation hold up today? Are they still relevant? For the most part, yes. But technological advances mean that, for a number of reasons, the concealment of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would not be such a clear cut issue. The Internet, the fact that there are multiple eyes on our skies and more cooperative international space programs would mean that the buck of alien discoveries would not stop with NASA.