The United Nations is set to appoint the head of its Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) as the first official responsible for representing humanity in the case of contact with extraterrestrial life. At an upcoming Royal Society (of London) conference scheduled from October 4-5, Dr Mazlan Othman will explain how the UN plans to implement changes that will result in her being given responsibility as part of her current position as the director of UNOOSA. Othman says the need for such a responsibility is due to the discovery of exoplanets that makes it more likely than ever that humanity will eventually discover extraterrestrial life. She has said that the UN is now actively planning a coordinated response for ‘First Contact’ .
Othman is a respected figure in the astrophysics and Outer Space Affairs community. She was the first female to graduate with a Ph.D in astrophysics from the University of Otago New Zealand (1981) and became Malaysia’s first astrophysicist. She was nominated by Kofi Annan to head UNOOSA from 1999 to 2002, before being summoned back to Malaysia to head the Malaysian National Space Agency from 2002-2007. She was responsible for the training and flight of Malaysia’s first astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, and was re-appointed head of UNOOSA by the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in 2007. As far as Othman’s scientific expertise is concerned, Professor Richard Crowther, a space law expert at the United Kingdom’s space agency said: “Othman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a ‘take me to your leader’ person”.
In a recent talk Othman said:
The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day human kind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.
At the October 4-5 Royal Society conference, Othman will go into detail in the process the UN plans to undertake to appoint her as humanity’s first representative for First Contact. The Conference is titled “Towards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life,” and its webpage explains the need for political processes to accommodate scientific study of extraterrestrial life:
Even more than the scientific agenda, a corresponding complementary societal agenda needs to be debated. With a mix of invited talks and panel debates, we particularly look into the detection of life, the communication with potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, the implications for the future of humanity, and the political processes that are required.”
Othman will present at a panel discussion titled: “Extra-terrestrial life and arising political issues for the UN agenda.”
Othman’s position shows that the United Nations is closely monitoring scientific developments concerning the discovery of exoplanets and the growing likelihood that life can be found throughout the universe. Recently, renowned astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking caused a furor when he said that extraterrestrial life is almost certain to exist, but we should be careful since they are likely to be predatory in nature. Hawking’s exopolitical speculations has stimulated wide ranging debate over the motivations of advanced extraterrestrial life. As a member of the Royal Society, Hawking’s views very likely played a role in influencing the agenda of the upcoming Royal Society conference.
The upcoming UN announcement of a First Contact official comes at a convenient time for a grass roots effort to get the City of Denver to pass an Ordinance, Initiative 300, that will create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission. Initiative 300 is on the ballot for the November mid-term elections and deals with some of the same “First Contact” issues that Othman will be given responsibility for at the UN. For example, the proposed Ordinance asks:
Shall the voters for the City and County of Denver adopt an Initiated Ordinance to require the creation of an extraterrestrial affairs commission to help ensure the health, safety, and cultural awareness of Denver residents and visitors in relation to potential encounters or interactions with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles, and fund such commission from grants, gifts and donations?
It will certainly be difficult to dismiss the importance of Denver’s proposed Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission if the UN moves forward with its plans to appoint Othman as the official responsible for First Contact, and the Royal Society endorses political processes to deal with the detection of extraterrestrial life.The upcoming appointment of a UN official to be in charge of a future First Contact scenario is a welcome step forward in legitimating discussion about the social and political implications of extraterrestrial life. Such a political discussion – popularly known as exopolitics – is the explicit focus of the upcoming Royal Society Conference. Uthman’s upcoming responsibility makes it more important than ever that the academic/scientific community discusses the social and political implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and the growing likelihood of First Contact.
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