I’ve been watching a lot of The Twilight Zone lately, and it has gotten me thinking about how much different and more exciting the idea of extraterrestrial life must have been in the 1950s when mankind had never explored outward. In many episodes, aliens are shown speaking English and looking completely human (with the addition of an extra arm and a third eye perhaps). Astronauts travel millions of miles in an afternoon and arrive on asteroids with Earth-like atmospheres. How wonderfully fantastic it must have been to live in an age of science fiction and unrealistic possibilities. At first, I felt that reality must have been a let down.
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth! Knowing the truth is always more incredible than fantasizing, and it makes our accomplishments that much greater when we understand how difficult they were. To understand that we have never been able to send human astronauts to Mars because it would be incredibly expensive and would have very serious health risks keeping the astronauts in zero G for months at a time (the shortest ever proposed Mars mission was 245 days, while a typical proposal is 500) will give us that much more respect for our species’ ingenuity when we make it to Mars. If aliens were so easy to find and so similar to us, would it feel like a special moment when we finally make contact?
Mankind has wondered if we are alone for thousands of years, but there are more planets out there than there are grains of sand on Earth; we statistically cannot be alone. But when will we make the greatest leap in human history? Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute believes that we will have evidence of life within the next 25 years (http://m.financialexpress.com/news/humans-will-find-aliens-by-2040-us-scientist/1225061?rhnews/). But assuming Dr. Shostak is correct, we may be in for a huge surprise. When we find extraterrestrial life, we will need to reassess what it means to be alive. We won’t see three armed humanoids, Daleks, or Spock. What we find will be far more exciting; we will have evidence that lighting could strike twice so to speak. Even if it is “just” a single-celled organism on an Earth-like planet 6.5 light years away, the fact it exists will be stranger and more exhilarating than anything from science fiction. It is extremely likely that we will be at a different stage of evolution and technological development than our first contact. Are we prepared to potentially feel outwitted?
As amazing as it must have been to live in Rod Serling’s time of exploration and possibility, *WE* are in the time where we have the chance to bridge the gap between fact and fancy, and that is the beauty of STEM, each generation can do what the previous could only dream of.