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Beyond The Sky
  • July 23, 2012 : 15:07
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Spotting a UFO is like falling in love—you suspect an illusion, but you can’t turn away. On the clear morning of June 24, 2011, five luminous white disks, spinning and dipping among the clouds, appeared in the sky over London. Witnesses captured the unidentified flying objects on their camera phones, and as I watched their videos I couldn’t help but believe. The disks had intelligence, sentience, even a kind of beauty. Since turning 40, I’d found myself at something of a crossroads. For the first time since childhood—though I knew it was absurd—I wondered if aliens existed and if they ever transported humans to an advanced world. Every night I watched the stars.

A few months later I found myself in London at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society. Richard Osborne had two drinks going—a glass of claret and a champagne chaser. He turned toward me and said with urgency, “We need to become a multiplanet society as fast as possible. Our solar system is in a dangerous spot. There are too many rocks floating around.”

Astrophysicists, engineers and science fiction enthusiasts milled around the buffet tables, discussing wormhole portals, warp drives and the possibility of hitchhiking on negative force fields. On the walls hung movie stills from 2001: A Space Odyssey signed by Arthur C. Clarke, one of the society’s early members. In a corner, a few of the latest rocket models stood on pedestals. 

Osborne opted for the vegetarian lasagna, so I followed suit. We’d had only a few bites when he guided me back to the drinks table. He wore a silk ascot under his blue oxford, and his long hair rippled across his shoulders. A physicist by training and a rocket specialist by trade, Osborne resembled a slightly overweight professional wrestler. “I’m not worried about global warming,” he said, “as much as I am about asteroids, which are a greater existential threat. We need to find our way to the next solar system. Or secure a base on the moon.”

Osborne is a designer for Project Icarus, a worldwide organization dedicated to improving travel time to nearby stars. Using conventional rocket-propulsion technology, it would take 70,000 years for Voyager 1, launched in 1977, to reach Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to our planet. The scientists of Project Icarus want to design a fusion-powered starship that could reach a nearby star in less than 100 years. They hope their research will lead to the launch of an interstellar vehicle by the year 2100.

I headed for the cans of ale stacked in a pyramid at the far end of the table. A little man in a tweed coat appeared at my elbow. His eyebrows twitched like angry mice. “Have you read my article on the benefits of asteroid mining in the April issue of Spaceflight?”

I told him I hadn’t yet seen that issue. “I’m in a debate with a certain physicist from San Diego,” the man said. “I believe I’ve decimated his argument. After all, we can use asteroids to replenish our platinum-group metals, then target them for water refueling during lunar colonization.”

I squeezed past him and got my hands on a beer. It had become uncomfortably warm at the Interplanetary Society—all the scientists, unleashed from their labs, had their brains on overdrive. I found an empty spot along the wall.

Standing beside me, a large man in a pin-striped suit had the reassuring air of a businessman. I found myself gravitating toward him.

He shook my hand and asked, “What brings you to our little gathering?”

“Just curiosity, I guess.” He studied me quietly. I had a swig of beer. “I just hope we’re not alone. You know, drifting around on a dying rock.”

“We take our motto seriously here: From imagination to reality.”

I looked around the room. “Anyone you know seen any UFOs?”

He shook his head. “We tend not to invite those types.”

Space exploration has reached the outer limits of our solar system. Voyager 1 should be the first man-made object to go interstellar. Meanwhile, the Kepler spacecraft has discovered dozens of planets orbiting distant stars. We are hot on the hunt for extraterrestrial life—and plan to make ourselves extraterrestrial—at a faster pace than ever before. Radio telescopes from Puerto Rico to Japan sweep the heavens for alien signals. Soon, on the Chajnantor plateau high in the mountains of Chile, the ultrasensitive Atacama Large Millimeter Array is expected to detect a new galaxy every three minutes. Are we at a midlife crisis as a species, increasingly aware of our uncertain future?

In late December, after celebrating a certain extraterrestrial’s birthday, I decided to check out the SETI Institute. I wanted to ask about the possibility of aliens at the place that had made its name searching for them.

The nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, founded in 1984 with the help of NASA’s chief of life sciences, uses large radio telescopes to scan the outer reaches of our galaxy. The institute partners with NASA on many projects and currently employs more than 150 people, including astrophysicists and astronomers with ties to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Frank Drake, whose “Drake equation” is the most widely used way to estimate the existence of intelligent life in the galaxy, is a SETI Institute trustee. Still, visiting hours were not listed on the website. When I called the main number, I heard a recorded message. Operators were either away from the desk or on another line. What if I’d been an alien?

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read more: entertainment, culture, issue july 2012


  • Anonymous
    So beautifully written. A poetic scientific, cosmic and philosophical journey.
  • Anonymous
    I agree, the writing's very good. But what's next? Is there a follow up piece?
  • Anonymous
    What, indeed, if you'd been an alien? Are they supposed to leave a message after the beep, or what? And how do we know you're not an alien spy, sent to confuse with your respectful, humorous, hopeful take on this question? A lovely read.
  • Anonymous
    Great stuff Rob Smith.