Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


Chapter 26.  First Contact and the Human Response


"Take me to your leader!"
          -- When They Come From Space by Mark Clifton (1962)2166

She’s off! The top’s loose!
Look out there! Stand back!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed ... Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks ... are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be...

Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It. . . it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by ... possibly gravity or something. The thing’s raising up. The crowd falls hack. They’ve seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words.

Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it. Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. Some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. ... That night forty people lay under the starlight about the pit, charred and distorted beyond recognition.
          -- from the script of the 1938 Mercury Theater "War of the Worlds" broadcast by Orson Welles,738 after H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898)1951

          "After almost a year, I decided I wanted to be a real doctor. So I started medical school -- an agency grant was easy to get." His voice dropped off softly.
          "You know. That’s when the Spican ships started landing. Man’s first interstellar visitors -- and I hardly even noticed. I was too busy boning up for my anatomy finals while the negotiations were going on. A lot of staff and the board members flew up to New York when the Spican bio-med laisons put on their demonstrations. They came back with their minds blown, talking about medical technology so advanced it might as well be magic. A month later the school was closed down."
          Bitter, "Why train people to make fires with flint and steel when the butane lighters are about to be handed out?"
          -- from "Xenofreak/Xenophobe" by Edward Bryant (1975)2170



If intelligent extraterrestrial races do exist elsewhere in the Galaxy, then it seems virtually inevitable that someday human and alien will meet. The consequences for our values and beliefs are many and complex, and would vary profoundly from culture to culture and among subcultures within large societies. If first contact occurs within the next few decades, in our own solar system, will humankind be prepared to receive alien visitors with the grace and intelligence of a mature civilization? Will the community of mankind be irrevocably sundered, or forever united, by an encounter with an advanced technical society from the stars?

There are many ways first contact may occur. Interstellar relations might take place with the whole of the extraterrestrial sentient species, with representative organizations of their race, or with individual members. Similarly, contact may be established with all of humanity, a part of humanity, or with single human beings. Contact scenarios may also be classified as to physical location -- encounters could occur on land, in the air, under the ocean, in Earth orbit, and so on. The consequences of and responses to contact might also vary significantly depending on the motives of the contactors -- it would make a great deal of difference to us if They came as traders, evangelists, slavers, teachers, or gourmets.

Perhaps the most useful to xenologists is a contact taxonomy based on the intensity of interaction. In this scheme, there are three fundamental levels of contact:

(A) Remote Contact,

(B) Direct Contact, and

(C) Surprise Contact.

While all encounters with ETs necessarily be somewhat in the nature of a "surprise," the above taxonomy groups together those modes of contact in which the potential transfer of information -- and the potential for disruption of the contacted society -- is roughly equivalent. Remote Contact, probably the safest method, involves interstellar or galactic radio links between neighboring civilizations. Only information and ideas could flow between the two cultures, and even a single exchange of messages would require decades or centuries to creep across the intervening light-years at the speed of light. (This is the standard SETI approach.) Direct Contact is considerably more risky: A well-publicized or authorized landing by an alien craft at a designated Air Force base, or perhaps a prearranged rendezvous on the Moon or in cislunar or interplanetary space. Clear prior notice would be provided by the ETs, with permission sought and granted before actual physical contact. (An automated messenger probe, or "Bracewell probe," would be an instance of Direct Contact.) The most dangerous and controversial of all, however, is Surprise Contact -- a sudden physical confrontation between humans and alien beings without warning or advance preparation.

Each of the three basic contact scenarios, graded as above according to the intensity of interaction, may be further subdivided and refined. For instance, ufologist J. Allen Hynek proposes a six-part subclassification scheme which could be applied to all Surprise Contacts occurring on Earth:


1. Nocturnal Lights -- UFOs seen at night. Almost invariably only the brightness, color, and motion of the light are reported.

2. Daylight Discs -- UFOs seen in daytime. So named because the most-reported shape is oval or disc-like.

3. Radar-Visual -- UFOs reported through the medium of radar, accompanied by a seemingly related visual confirmation.


1. Close Encounters of the First Kind -- UFO sighted at close range, but there is no interaction with the environment other than possible psychological trauma to the human observer.

2. Close Encounters of the Second Kind -- UFO sighted at close range, accompanied by physical effects on nearby animate and inanimate matter. (Pressed vegetation, burn marks, broken tree branches, frightened animals; disabled vehicles, power blackouts, etc.).

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- UFO sighted at close range, and its alien occupants are observed in or about the craft. Physical effects and actual contact between humans and ETs may occur.597

Regardless of one's personal view of the UFO phenomenon (the author is highly skeptical), and despite the fact that no evidence exists today that can compel scientific acceptance of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, still the possibility of present-day ET surveillance cannot be ruled out by logic and scientific arguments alone. Based on the conclusions reached elsewhere in this book, it is fairly easy to see the fallacies hidden in numerous arguments advanced to "prove" that the extraterrestrial hypothesis vis-a-vis UFOs is "impossible."

Perhaps most pervasive are the "numbers" arguments, which purport to demonstrate that since the number of launching civilizations is so small, and the number of interesting places to visit is so large, that the average number of starship launchings per year is so great as to be grossly unreasonable. For example, assuming a million technical civilizations in the Galaxy, Carl Sagan writes:

Let’s assume that each of these million technical civilizations launch Q interstellar space vehicles a year; thus, 106Q interstellar space vehicles are launched per year. Let’s assume that there’s only one contact made per journey. In the steady-state situation there are something like 106Q arrivals somewhere or other per year. Now there surely are something like 1010 interesting places in the galaxy to visit and therefore at least 10-4Q arrivals at a given interesting place, let’s say a planet, per year. So if only one UFO is to visit the earth each year, we can calculate what mean launch rate is required at each of these million worlds. The number turns out to be 10,000 launches per year per civilization; and 1010 launches in the galaxy per year. This seems excessive.. . . So I deduce from these arguments that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is in some trouble if we’re to imagine that even a smallish fraction of the ten or twenty thousand UFO cases reported in the last twenty to twenty-five years are interstellar in origin.18

Assuming the above calculation is valid, are 10,000 launches per year per civilization at all unreasonable? Consider first the energetic requirements. In Chapter 17 we showed that a 100 light-year mission at 1 gee acceleration on a Standard Flight Plan using a vessel the size of the Starship Enterprise (of Star Trek fame) would cost about 9 x 1026 joules. This represents about 9 seconds of the total power output of a single mature Type II stellar civilization. To launch starships at a rate of 10,000 per year would require 90,000 seconds’ worth of energy, about a day’s production of power. Surely it is not unreasonable for an advanced society to expend a mere 0.3% of its annual energy output on. interstellar exploration and commerce? This is the fraction of humanity's present energy output currently expended on aviation (see Scientific American (January 1975):35); perhaps 30% is used for all forms of transporation.

How about mass requirements? If each vessel weighs 190,000 metric tons (like the fictional TV starship Enterprise) then the total requirement for a 10,000-ship-a-year operation would be 1.9 x 1012 kg. This figure is only about twice the current world production of iron and steel. The required equivalent amount of metal may be recovered by capturing a single small nickel-iron asteroid (diameter of 700 meters) or by processing about 3 cubic kilometers of earth-crust per year at an average power cost of 1012 watts. This is well within the abilities of a Type I planetary civilization such as near-future humanity, so should be a snap for any Type II stellar culture. Furthermore, if such explorations have been going on since the origin of the Milky Way 12 billion years ago, making the rather harsh (and inexplicably wasteful) presumption that each starship is used for only one mission and is then discarded,18 total mass requirement over the age of the Galaxy is only 2.3 x 1022 kg per launching civilization. This is well within the mass budget even of a Type I planetary civilization, and corresponds to about one-third the mass of Luna -- a not unreasonable expenditure over a 12 billion year block of time.

So assuming Sagan’s calculation is correct, the results are not unreasonable at all. Far from it -- 106 mature Type II stellar societies probably could easily dispatch 1 UFO to Earth per year even operating under Sagan's pessimistic constraints. However, Sagan's calculation is most assuredly not correct, because at least two of his assumptions contain major flaws.

The first questionable assumption is that each starship makes only one contact per journey. The error is common in the literature: namely, that one UFO sighting necessarily corresponds to one interstellar journey. But much as the proposed Project Daedalus starship (see Chapter 24) would carry up to 18 subprobes and 2 "wardens" to be deployed on a wide variety of missions upon arrival, the target solar system, a somewhat larger, also fully automated single alien starprobe might have as many as 100 maneuverable high-performance lander craft. If these were operating secretly around our planet since the late 1940s (or earlier) and if, on the average, each craft was sighted by a human and reported only once every month, this would generate a total of 36,000 sightings during the past three decades of UFO observation. It would be a simple matter for the. "mother ship" to hide behind an asteroid, or in a small crater or cavern on the dark side of the Moon, and periodically to recharge itself (and its 100 lander craft) using solar energy from our sun.

The second questionable assumption is that there is nothing terribly unusual about Earth, and so there is nothing to distinguish us from the other 10 billion interesting places in the Galaxy to visit. From our discussion of technological advance in Chapter 25, we found that technical evolution may carry a sentient race from "impotence" to "omnipotence" in the space of ten thousand years. Technical advance may look like a "step function" (see Figure 25.2) on megayear timescales. Since humanity is almost halfway up the step, we may properly be regarded as a "transition society." If, as Sagan suggests, there are only one million advanced technological civilizations extant in the Milky Way, then theory suggests there might only be about 100 races in the Galaxy whose development is within 104 years of our own. In other words, we may be one of a hundred "transition societies" in the entire Milky Way! This could make Earth an object of inordinate interest to extraterrestrial explorers and researchers.

Let us redo Sagan’s calculation, taking into account the above corrections of the two faulty assumptions. Since each interstellar vehicle can count as >100 UFOs because of its lander craft, there are 108Q arrivals "somewhere or other" per year. Since there are 100 "interesting places to visit" (transition societies like Earth), we have 106Q arrivals at a given interesting planet per year. To obtain 1000 UFO reports each year on Earth, 106Q = 103 so Q = 10-3 launches per year per civilization (or 1 launch every millennium per civilization). This works out to only 1000 launches total per annum galaxywide, an even more reasonable outcome than Sagan’s original result.*

Our study of the theory of first contact and the basic principles of thermoethics suggests that alien encounter programs with the highest ethical content will be characterized by stealth, caution, and minimization of harm to the contactee culture. Reckoning from the Entropic Censorship Rule, we should expect Surprise Contacts to be the exception rather than the rule. Contact may be attempted only after humanity has been carefully "researched" by the advanced alien race for many decades or even centuries. (They may be clonic, bionic, robotic, or immortal.) Such cautious, evasive behavior is a hallmark of the most reliable UFO "close encounter" cases. Hynek provides one typical example:

An airplane took off from the airport and passed overhead of the object. All the lights went out until the plane was past it. Then with approximately four bright flickers, the object moved from west to southwest and through the overcast. ... It seemed to me that this object was charting a course or investigating different objects on the ground, as the lights would stop on certain objects such as cars, pickups, hedges, shrubbery, houses, utility lines, and poles.597

If UFOs are piloted by aliens, this would explain why there have been no landings on the White House lawn as yet. The ETs are still studying us, and believe that to openly contact humanity at this time might trigger major cultural and global upheavals. Social entropication is to be avoided; hence, the extraterrestrials are avoiding us. But perhaps they don't mind if a few people spot a few UFOs now and again. In fact, this may be part of a planned acclimatization schedule to preadapt the modern human psyche to the reality of encounter with alien races when it occurs.171 If we become accustomed to the UFO phenomenon, perhaps we shall be less fearful when contact actually occurs. It is much like the "dear enemy" concept in sociobiology, involving the tolerance of neighbors in adjacent territories: "The more something stays around without causing harm, the more likely it is to be part of the favorable environment."565

The above speculations are not meant to imply that the extraterrestrial hypothesis for the UFO phenomenon is correct. Rather, it is the author’s sole intention in the above discussion to demonstrate that the ET hypothesis is not inconsistent with present-day science fact or xenological theory. "Proper" first contact techniques are frequently exemplified in many ufological "close encounter" reports. It is in this spirit of openmindedness and acceptance of the possibility of physical encounters with extraterrestrial intelligences that we now consider the rich diversity of human responses to first contact.**


* Of course, first you have to find the 100 interesting "transition, societies." But this should not prove difficult. If we spread the 1010 initial exploratory missions over 106 civilizations and a period of 107 years, the launch rate can still be held to 1 starship per millennium per society. If each starship can cursorily examine as many as 1000 solar systems before heading for home, then the initial exploratory period can be cut to 10,000 years.

** We cannot leave this subject without making brief mention of planetary landing vehicles. Although noted UFO debunker Philip J. Klass claims that saucer-shaped craft are aerodynamically unstable and unwieldy,695 other writers have speculated on reasonable propulsion systems for disc-shaped orbit-to-ground excursion vehicles, including Blumrich,1058 Demetriades and Kretschmer,727 Finch,752 Rosa,255 and Winder.760 Another unusual concept is the Orbital Tower, or "space elevator," traversing a structure strung from ground up to geosynchronous stationary orbit.1472


Last updated on 6 December 2008