but if the big, bad aliens really do invade…

April 14, 2011

Last week, we covered the concept of stealthy aliens guarding their natural resources from big, bad invaders who could make mincemeat out of their defenses and pillage their holdings to fuel whatever immense horde they have to feed and supply. But even though I said that it was highly unlikely given the resource glut of the typical solar system, it’s not inconceivable, and some informed speculation from Dr. Ian O’Neill prompts me to revisit the topic of alien invasions to ask whether we should take Hawking’s words on the subject to heart and live with some fear of being invaded by armies of little green men. Maybe a little paranoia would go a long way and pay major dividends in the end. After all, our entire space program exists because two superpowers’ military resources made it possible and we don’t go around decrying the internet, microwaves, and GPS as a waste of time and cash because they were never used for their intended purpose: as tools in a war between two of the world’s largest and best funded militaries armed with nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. How much will we complain if we get space hotels and vacations on Mars by preparing for an alien invasion?

Of course this isn’t to say that we should look at our defense establishments as clairvoyant or assume that a space program is only possible with military involvement. The reason why they were and are still involved in matters concerning space has to do with the size of their budgets and their overarching mission of look for a potential threat in just about anything. Having a somewhat paranoid mindset and a large budget to tinker with some seemingly outlandish ideas does yield some interesting out-of-the-box thinking and prototypes for the kinds of things today’s risk averse and numbers-driven research institutions won’t even consider. It’s how the generals in both the USSR and the U.S. decided that launching humans in space was an interesting and viable idea, committing some of their substantial resources to human space travel, while wondering what it would take to assemble a citadel on another world just to keep an eye on their rivals. We can certainly bring up the human cost of the Cold War, but there’s no question that humans seem to be at their most ingenious when planning for conflict. With a potential alien invasion in mind, pretty much any idea may be viable and all sorts of interesting new research avenues might just be opened, yielding new technologies with a number of uses in the civilian world, from power generation, to manufacturing, to medicine.

Hold on a second though. How could we ever afford to prepare for an event as unlikely as a war with aliens if we live in an era of gaping budget deficits and there’s widespread poverty around the globe? And realistically, strictly speaking, we couldn’t devote a whole lot of time and effort to this, though we could also say that aliens really won’t care about our fiscal situation or vaccination and literacy rates in developing nations if they were to attack. However, we can use some cash buried in weapon development programs and used on redundant or needless projects and invest it in those which yield weapons capable of doing damage in space. As noted a while back, our conventional missiles and bombs won’t work in a vacuum, so we’d need to further develop kinetic impactors, lasers, and railguns, weaponry that is suitable for an orbital dogfight and also delivers a lot of damage down here on Earth. More complex things like armed, crewed spacecraft capable of long trips into the solar system are going to be more complex to pull off, but they are very likely to be just militarized versions of civilian space stations made by the same companies busy planning orbital hotels, and the technology they will require could then be channeled right back into the space tourism industry to build new, bigger, and more reliable space hotels and research stations. Though depending how heavily the military craft in question can be armed could be governed by the Outer Space Treaty which forbids orbital WMDs.

Now I can already hear the biggest objection of them all to this concept. Why militarize space? Why not simply explore it rather than take our wars to yet another place? One of the biggest hurdles to the idea of a peaceful, space-faring human species of the future is our nature. If we start settling space, we will declare territories or outposts as our property and there will be debates and clashes over who owns what. Treaties will have to be rewritten, new legal frameworks will have to be put into place, and all those claims will have to be enforced by something and that something is more than likely going to have to be the threat of military intervention. And as long as we have humans who think that because an unarmed territory just means that they can waltz on it and claim it as their own, we’ll have a need for militaries. But of course there’s a little more to it than that. If there’s alien life in our solar system, it’s most likely in forms that can’t harm us, trapped under the ice of moons that orbit gas giants, or very hearty, radiation-resistant bacteria on Mars. Were we to try and reach beyond, to an extrasolar world which might be habitable, our probable plan for the trip would have to involve weapons just in case there’s some sort of confrontation. Even if we go with the best intentions, we could stumble into a very paranoid and highly militarized species ready to attack anything that moves, and we need to be ready. It’s not realistic to ascribe to messianic UFOlogy when we know that space is often a very harsh place, and assume that the aliens we might encounter will be docile and ready to share their knowledge with us…

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  • Paul

    “our probable plan for the trip would have to involve weapons just in case there’s some sort of confrontation. Even if we go with the best intentions, we could stumble into a very paranoid and highly militarized species ready to attack anything that moves, and we need to be ready.”

    Not necessarily. We’re as likely to be accepted if we are unarmed and passively accept their probing and quarantining, etc. (Sucks for the volunteers, but that’s why they’re volunteers.)

    Although we have no way of telling in advance which would be more respected by the aliens (armed or unarmed), but if we fired on them, no matter what the provocation from our point of view, we’ve just declared war on an entire alien civilisation. Good luck talking your way back from that.

    (I think it was in David Brin’s Uplift series, the first interstellar FTL ship from Earth was crewed solely by pregnant women. On the assumption they’d do anything to avoid a fight.)