Heavenly Secrets

How the NASA researchers who inspired the film Contact outfoxed Congress and continued the search for intelligent aliens

Are we alone?
If the musings of the more enthusiastic scientists who conduct the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence are any guide, once we know we have company in the universe, astonishing advances will occur. Then, because the civilization communicating with Earth will most certainly be thousands of years more advanced than our own, we will instantly become privy to the wisdom of the ages. That civilization will have learned how to cure disease, outlive nuclear weapons, and solve the countless other quandaries haunting our species, so life expectancy on Earth will skyrocket.

Earthlings will wire into an intergalactic Internet, through which far-flung civilizations communicate across time and space. As earthlings are freed from planetary tethers, eons of alien science will make us immortal, omniscient, and transcendentally wise.

And later, intergalactic historians will tell the story of the urgent quest -- SETI -- that gave birth to humanity's final, everlasting age. The historians will tell how the space agency from the Earth's most powerful realm, America, designed a plan to search for space aliens in Earth Year 1971, and then began a taxpayer-funded quest years later. They will explain that a shortsighted legislative body -- a cacophonous assemblage known as Congress -- ordered a stop to governmental funding of SETI in 1993.

But the scholars of universal history will also describe how a troupe of wily public scientists secretly defied the American Congress, first using government money to continue their extraterrestrial search and ultimately moving the search to a private organization, even as government funds were still used. The historians will describe how stalwart SETI scientists suffered more than 30 years of astral silence, the skepticism of their peers, and the condescension of government bureaucrats -- until contact was made.

Or Silence?
Or perhaps the line, the whine, the flash -- any evidence of intelligent life outside Earth -- will never come. And the giant antenna arrays and banks of SETI supercomputers will note the same heartbreaking silence that has haunted such searches without exception for more than three decades, since Frank Drake conducted the first U.S.-based search in '61, and we will be left to fend for ourselves.

It's a notion that runs contrary to the historical current of human thought. But, as the English biologist J.B.S. Haldane famously said: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.

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