Irrespective of Hollywood's perspective on the implications of alien contact, the dialogues that would inevitably follow an actual encounter are enormous, almost too staggering to conceive. Imagine the questions we could ask a visiting extraterrestrial: Do you have a cure for cancer? Is there life after death? Are the physical laws in your part of the universe the same as in ours? Is there a way to overcome the burden of gravity, prolong youth, exceed the speed of light...? Think of the things we could learn, among them, as Carl Sagan put it, how "possibly to avoid the dangers of the period of technological adolescence we are now passing through."
Yet despite the obvious benefits to be reaped from such contact, there exists a vociferous group that appears to oppose any and all efforts to make it. Riding the wave of popular enthusiasm for Star Wars and the Marvel universe, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has found renewed interest and funding. Its detractors have argued that after untold sums of money and over half a century, there has been not a single piece of credible evidence that their exists life outside of our universe.
Vintage OMNI: The Future of Space Travel
Much to the skeptical late Senator Proxmire's disappointment, NASA joined in SETI efforts at a low-level in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of these SETI-related efforts included Project Orion, the Microwave Observing Project, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and Toward Other Planetary Systems. On Columbus Day in 1992, NASA initiated a formal, more intensive, SETI program. Less than a year later, however, congress canceled the program. For nearly two decades, SETI was secondary to the search for new technology and ideas here on Earth, in the dawn of the digital age.
In 2015, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a well-funded effort, called the Breakthrough Initiatives to expand efforts of space travel and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Throughout the 1970s, SETI projects were not the only imaginative opportunities to be fleeced by then Senator Edward William "Bill" Proxmire. Funds for the Solar-Polar Orbiter, a spacecraft designed to fly over the poles of the sun, were cut as were funds slated to outfit the Enterprise, the test space shuttle. As one vintage writer put it, the cuts left "barely enough to keep the Enterprise from being cannibalized for spare parts." Similarly, Proxmire vigorously opposed the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous on the grounds that the Russians were somehow inferior to us in aerospace. This has been debunked, as evidence now shows that the space race was actually quite close. The senator seemed blind to the fact that the Russians were there first with Sputnik and that the Soviets were regularly sending men into space before Neil Armstrong.
Paul Davies' Search for Alien Intelligence
The arguments behind this depreciation of a government sponsored space program are simple: the program itself is too expensive, we get too little for the money spent, and, besides, it could be better deployed on such things as poverty, education, and national infrastructure spends. This has led to a migration of brain power to the private sector and what is becoming the privatization of space
Ironically, we got a great deal for the money we spent on the 20th century race for space and listening for aliens. The development of communications satellites alone, an advance that has done more for human understanding than all the social welfare projects funded to date, would seem worth the cost. Moreover, who can put a dollar value on the tremendous uplifting of the human spirit that occurred on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon, setting the tone for America's world leadership? In a time where we have serious deficits in our world leadership, fragile economies and very little that unites us globally, SETI remains rare exception. There is still a vast unknown that may be the answer to the human condition.
Finally, it is foolish to think that money cut from space programs will actually be used to better the quality of life here on earth. Lumped under the general category of "defense," more than 60 percent of the federal budget for research and development, for example, still goes to the creation of newer and more sophisticated means of destruction. We may have ended the space race, but we never stopped the arms race.