Ian Maddox, Johns Hopkins University:
On February 22nd, astronomers said that 7 planets circling around red dwarf star Trappist 1 lie within the goldilocks zone. Whether these planets harbor life or are barren wastelands, scientists of NASA and Europe claim that future analysis will give humans further insight into the origins of life in the cosmos.
Last week, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft announced its descent between Saturn’s rings, beginning an exploration of Titan and Enceladus. Of all the celestial bodies in our Solar System, these moons are the most likely candidates of extraterrestrial life. “To Cassini will go the credit for discovering what many astronomers think is the most likely place to find evidence of life beyond Earth,” stated Dennis Overbye of the New York Times.
The discovery of extraterrestrial life will raise many political questions. The concepts of “citizens of the earth”, “human identity”, “commonwealth of humankind”, and “manifest destiny” have already begun to form without the presence of alien activity. Politics are defined by activities associated with governance over a certain area. Following first contact, humans will not only have to work with an entirely new geographical landscape, but also interact with an entirely different species with foreign customs, history, languages, and political systems. Dealing with this diplomatic challenge will require humans to not only change their perception of the cosmos, but also their perception of themselves as an Earth-bound intelligent life form.
From space, political boundaries, nationalities, and governments cannot be seen. To a distant cosmic traveler, humans are simply citizens of the Earth, a planet that appears to be nothing more than a pale blue dot in an average sized solar system. Looking at the Earth from space allows a viewer to achieve a different form of consciousness, a cognitive shift in awareness often referred to as The Overview Effect. From this vantage, political conflicts seem irrational and irrelevant.
Existing political literature in space policy bolsters this argument. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 describes space as “the common interest of mankind”, and The Moon Treaty of 1979 mandates that all celestial bodies are “the common heritage of mankind”. Rather than placing the keys to the cosmos into the hands of a particular government, these treaties explicitly empower a unified apolitical human population.
Will first contact be the first step towards establishing world peace? Will humans come together as citizens of the Earth? Unfortunately, the historical record does not support this conclusion.
Political activity in space has been occurring for nearly 100 years, and the vast majority of missions have been military endeavors. The first astronauts were military test pilots, the first rockets were missiles, and the first satellites were the property of the US army. The father of modern spaceflight was Wernher von Braun, a Nazi military aerospace engineer. Space is a political-military project, not civil-economic. With this precedence in mind, first contact likely would perpetuate military capabilities. Traded technologies and allegiances with such an extraterrestrial power would result in certain nations achieving insurmountable military power.
Encountering aliens will not peacefully unite humanity, but instead fracture the already fragile system of polities in place. A common extraterrestrial enemy might temporarily unite Earthlings, but only under the short-term objective of war. Alternatively, a common extraterrestrial ally would not peacefully unite Earthlings, but simply change the balance of power. Individual Earth states would compete for trade with the extraterrestrials using the same political systems in place. It is more likely that space powers would monopolize the industry, subjecting other nationsto their authority.
First contact will not fix all of the problems humanity faces at home. If world peace and unity is to be achieved we must do it on our own. Before making outer space the commonwealth of mankind, humanity must make Earth the commonwealth of mankind.