NASA Preps for Space Invaders

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 8/19/2011 | 32 comments

David Wagner
If you’re a fan of the Geekend, you’ve probably seen quite a lot of movies in which aliens invade the earth. I say "invade" because, with very few exceptions, aliens are depicted in movies as mindless, dangerous creatures out to enslave us.

How we depict aliens in movies says a lot about the cultural demons we are fighting. Aliens often stand in for our hopes and fears, much like vampires keep getting recast to both show our fear of the dark and our desire to live forever as awkward teens trying to date for the first time. Mostly, we just watch the aliens blow up Hollywood’s chosen landmark and then watch Will Smith or Harrison Ford save the day. But recently, someone at NASA decided to spend a little time and think about just what an alien contact or invasion scenario might look like by writing a paper on the subject.

The media have responded to this paper with a little tongue-in-cheek commentary and occasionally with mocking for spending money on such a silly project. They particularly saved their jokes for NASA’s suggestion that aliens might invade us to stop us from destroying our planet with global warming.

First off, the paper was done in the author's spare time. Second, as silly as it sounds, it is NASA’s job to track potential dangers to America that come from space -- including giant meteors and, yes, alien invasions -- and speculate on what finding E.T. will really be like. And heck, I decided it sounds like a whole lot of fun for us!

NASA breaks down a potential alien contact scenario into three buckets: beneficial, neutral, and harmful. That seems to cover it.

The beneficial scenario usually revolves around the Star Trek “first contact” scenario, in which an enlightened race beams angelically down from the cosmos to save us from our sins. Much of the thinking behind this scenario is that to get to the point where you can travel faster than light, you’ve probably solved a lot of the social ills that have hindered mankind to this point. Under this scenario, we’re usually gifted with the technology to “fix” ourselves and are welcomed into a galactic community. We’ve seen some aspect or another of this scenario in movies like ET, Cocoon, and Star Trek. It is noteworthy that I am unaware of a movie showing happy aliens produced in America in over a decade. Am I missing one?

The neutral scenario is perhaps the most scientifically interesting. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome to orchestrate a successful alien encounter. For starters, you have to learn to communicate faster than we currently can. Traveling at the speed of light, communication from planet to planet is a generational affair. Assuming similar lifecycles, the people who sent the message, “Welcome, we come in peace,” will be dead by the time we sent back the message, “Aiiieee! Who the heck are you people?”

Getting your people to actually show up at our doorstep is even harder. And then if they do, what are the chances we’ll understand each other? That we’ll be compatible biologically so that we can even “see” each other. We often wonder, since there are so many planets in the universe, why we haven’t heard from one of them before. It is possible the answer is that they’re there and trying, but they’re so different we just don’t get it.

Of course, then there is the harmful scenario, Hollywood’s favorite. Ever notice how we almost never know the motivation behind the alien attack? We don’t know if they want to enslave us, eat us, or just blow us up for their entertainment. From a social point of view, that makes sense. We want to show heroism without muddling the picture with another side of the story. We did the same thing with cowboy and Indian movies before we realized the racist undertones. NASA has pointed out some interesting reasons why an alien invasion might be harmful without the mindless killing. Of course, there is the disease issue. Biological incompatibility may lead to our very own viruses and bacteria killing each other.

And another very interesting one is that a benevolent alien race might kill us because aliens see us as a threat to the order of the galaxy. They might see our destruction of our own planet, the violence we show to each other, or our impending ability to colonize space in the future as a threat to a peaceful and ordered galactic way of life. In other words, we might make otherwise nice aliens kill us in perceived self-defense. So, the next time you watch Will Smith kick some alien’s butt, remember that alien might just be there to keep us from ruining the universe for everyone else.

OK, so now it is time for the fun part. That’s when you get to post your answers to some questions. Do you believe there is alien life? Will we ever meet face to face? Will they blow us up? What do you think an alien encounter will look like? If you were writing a sci-fi movie, how would you do it? Answer below. It might just turn into a Will Smith movie.

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Steel2179   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/23/2011 12:30:09 PM
Re: Pretty Cool!
Obviously there are other factors to consider, but in my mind we're mostly taking about random chance.

I always wondered that as well.  The odds, actions and potential fallout are always described on our terms.  The reality is that we might not ever know...unless they are nice and send us advance notice.
NickB   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/23/2011 9:50:16 AM
Re: Movie, After Movie, After Movie
@NickB, I feel that its because humans are afraid of uncertainty. Suppose aliens exist,we  don't know if they are friendly, we dont know about their nature. So its natural for us to feel a sense of danger.


Thats  good point we are scared of what we can't control. Its a natural reaction. We should really throw people off my making an alien movie about creatures that morph themselves into friendly and adorable colorful teddy bears that drop out of a space ship. Then they can fool us and slaughter all of mankind...Killer teddy bears from outer space.

Anand   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/23/2011 5:53:23 AM
Re: Movie, After Movie, After Movie
I could never quite understand why we always depict the aliens as violet nasty creatures and why are they always so ugly.

@NickB, I feel that its because humans are afraid of uncertainty. Suppose aliens exist,we  don't know if they are friendly, we dont know about their nature. So its natural for us to feel a sense of danger.

Anand   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/23/2011 5:47:37 AM
Re: Pretty Cool!
for them us (humans) would be the aliens.

@Taimoor, Cant imagine myself as an alien. If the stories about UFO etc are true then I guess they are more powerful than us and they are already keeping an eye on us.
cvargas   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 6:43:35 PM
Re: Movie, After Movie, After Movie

I like your balloon analogy.  It does make it easier to understand for those with lesser math and science backgrounds.  I was fortunate that my Physics teacher in high school was also a college professor that taught physics and astronomy.  So she provided many insights towards the world of science that I would have otherwise may have never known.  Maybe that is why I have such a TV and movie "click" towards Sci-Fi.

Thanks Mrs. Fisher for the ever lasting effect you had on me. =)
David Wagner   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 4:21:22 PM
Re: Pretty Cool!
@Zerox203- Agreed. I think if they visit us, it can happen (or may have already happened) any time.

By the way, for fun, did anyone see that DARPA is offering a grant competition with a prize of $500,000 for a unviersity or other agency that to take on a "100 year project" to "build a starship." Obviously, they know the prize is a drop in the bucket and they know it could take a lot more or a lot less than a century. But it is designed to start people thinking along those lines.

We could be sitting here in a few years speculating on what the DARPA starship will find when it visits other world. Or, at least, our great grandkids might be.


zerox203   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 4:12:13 PM
Re: Pretty Cool!
I do have a bone to pick with the notion that contact with intelligent life, if it is to occur, won't happen for hundreds or thousands of years. Assuming the contact occurs because of their means of technology/travel/communication rather than ours, isn't it as likely to happen next week as it is in a millienium? Obviously there are other factors to consider, but in my mind we're mostly taking about random chance.

The other common explanation in fiction is that we make a sudden, inexplicable breakthrough in technology that allows us to achieve space travel or what-have-you much faster than we could have imagined. This is less believable, but again, fits my condition - if it's an inexplicable leap, then of course we can't see it coming!

I saw a special on TV once in which experts said that light-speed travel (ala Star Wars) was impossible because you could never get that much thrust with any amount of fuel. I think they were missing the point.
David Wagner   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 2:46:36 PM
Re: Movie, After Movie, After Movie
@Cvargas and NickyB- I asked this very same question while I was a student at Johns Hopkins when i took a class with Dr. Eric Chaisson who was an astronomer and director of PR for the Hubble telescope.

His answer is that there is no "edge of space" because the universe is always expanding. When you ask "what is it expanding into" his answer is time. I know it is hard to grip your mind around the concept of the universe expanding into time, and it is one of the reasons I stopped toying briefly with being an astronmer for a living (that and my calculus gave out on me).

But one analogy that is gaining traction is that the universe is really stretching rather than expanding. The difference is that expanding suggests that there is an outer edge and the outer edge is growing in circumference around a central point. What is actually happening is closer to the idea of balloon being blown up. If you take a partially inflated balloon and draw a dozen or so black dots on it, and blow up the balloon further, you'll see the black dots get farther away from each other but keep their relative distances. That is what is happening with galaxies in the unverse.

Galaxies aren't moving in space like a car on a highway. They are stationary. However, the distances between the galaxies is increasing. So it isn't expanding into anything physical, it is expanding into time.
Taimoor Zubair   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 2:26:24 PM
Re: Pretty Cool!
David, for them us (humans) would be the aliens. Would be interesting to see what perception they had about us in terms of looks and capabilities :)
cvargas   NASA Preps for Space Invaders   8/22/2011 12:28:38 PM
Re: Movie, After Movie, After Movie

I don't know if you are familar with the TV series called Firefly that turned into the movie called Serenity, but in both of them they both had references to the "edge of space".  So is there an end?  I don't think you or I will ever find it out in our life time.
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