Subscribe to receive SETI Institute news weekly in your inbox.

2020: The Year When the Earth Became an Alien Colony and We Were the Astronauts

2020: The Year When the Earth Became an Alien Colony and We Were the Astronauts

Fish-eye view from the international space station

Social distancing is a vital weapon against C19, the virus that currently ravages human populations around the globe. With much of the world quarantined, the interactions and ways of life we took for granted only three weeks ago have been taken away from us in a lifesaving decision against a pandemic. Economic downfall, social misery and high stress levels are only part of the repercussions of the current situation. While it is a heartbreaking price to pay, it is nothing compared to the much higher price we would pay for not going through this together. How we come out of it will very much depend on each person’s response, and global decisions now and in the weeks to come. 

It is an hour of reckoning for our generation. It’s also a chance to show our mettle and come out of this wiser and more aware of this inner strength that lies often hidden deep inside each of us until the time comes to call upon it. We are in one of these moments now. This newfound wisdom will be the positive learning we can take away from this global ordeal. This discovery of our fortitude brought to the service of a higher goal, and this inner strength we never knew we had, can help us achieve anything, whether we apply it to family and earthly cares, education, or planetary exploration.

It might seem farfetched to you right now, but this is what I mean. This hiatus in our normal lives is a painful, albeit necessary constraint. But the new daily routine is already surreptitiously changing you and bringing skills to the surface you might think are reserved to explorers on Earth or in space. I think I can hear you laughing right now. Right. “Shelter-in-place” is some exploration; I agree but bear with me here.

You’ve been responsibly helping the global effort to get rid of C19 for the past three weeks now, or longer depending on where you live. The only map you can think of at this point is the floor plan of your house, whether you should tour it clockwise or counterclockwise today, or in which corner you should plan the upcoming weekend. By now, you probably know the number of tiles on your bathroom floor. You played pick-up sticks with your spaghetti a few times already, only to find out that it is a lot easier when it is uncooked. You also find yourself in-debt forever to your mother-in-law for the 100,000-piece puzzle she gave you for Christmas. You even caught yourself fist-pumping because the sports channel is rerunning the latest playoffs of your  favorite sports league this afternoon, and that will kill at least six hours. Excitement? Meh, a little, but exploration? 

So, what do I mean? Well, I know a little bit about social distancing because it makes a significant part of my life, my professional life, and not only when I’m trying to avoid my boss deliberately. When I am not wearing the hat of Head of Science at the Institute, for those who follow my research, you know that it is about expeditions in extreme environments and exploration of places that are analogous to Mars. I am taking my teams literally in the middle of nowhere, and I mean n.o.w.h.e.r.e, like on top of a 20,000 ft-high volcano nowhere in the Andes, which itself is pretty much surrounded by not much, except for the vast expanses of the Altiplano and the Atacama desert. That’s several hundreds of kilometers of nowhere everywhere around us in all directions. And, I am not the only one here at the SETI Institute doing this. Leading expeditions in extreme environments and being crew members of teams that go to those isolated places is an integral part of how we conduct science. We collect data about our planet to learn how to explore others. We do this by diving in the summit lakes of insanely high volcanoes at very high altitude in the Andes or under the ice at the polar caps to see what lives there. We prepare for human exploration of the Moon and Mars at a remote station on an island in the middle of the Arctic ocean.

Although you might not see it right away, there are many parallels between those expeditions and the social distancing we are all going through these days. The success of our fieldwork depends on leadership, self-reliance, team dynamics, decision-making, the balance between risk management and risk-taking, and tolerance to isolation. We have crews and resources to manage, and part of our responsibilities include, first and foremost, to keep our team healthy and safe, sometimes from hostile conditions, and sometimes from themselves. And we must also keep the morale of the troops high, regardless of the circumstances. Importantly, whether we like it or not, whoever is in that team or that crew with us is here to stay for the duration. In summary, we have to make it work.

So, does this sound a little more familiar now? I knew it would. Indeed, some significant parallels and lessons can help you through these challenging times. When you think about it this way, you come to realize that we have a bit more margin now than we have in the field or that astronauts have in space or would on Mars. The fact that you’re at home does not detract from what you are achieving every day. You’re keeping your crew safe and your expedition to the end of the social distancing successful. All of this requires fortitude, resilience, heart. Being scared is part of the deal, and it is normal. The greatest leaders are not those who are not scared. They are those who have learned how to deal with their fear. They have figured out how to tip the balance of circumstances in ways that make them manageable, to bring the odds in their favor. Great leaders are those who have learned when it is time to make a push for it, or when to regroup and stay still so they can fight, climb, or explore another day.

If you want, we would love to hear from you and chat with you. We don’t pretend to have all the answers; we don’t. For starters,  we are not the kind of doctors that can help you cure C19. But we can help you go through these challenging times and heal in different ways by showing you that you are neither powerless nor alone and that in fact, there are some teachable moments and positive twists for everybody, for the present and the future. 

We want to listen to your questions if you wish to ask any, and may be share tips and experiences from our challenges in exploration, the fun and scary moments, and how we went through them. And it is a two-way avenue. By now, you are becoming pros at being sheltered in your exploration pods, and others that maybe a bit behind on that learning curve in different parts of the globe. We are exploring this new C19 planet together. We are all observers and data collectors, and we can all help each other.

So, here is what we will do: 

On Tuesday, April 14 at 3PM PDT I will do a Facebook Live event to hear your ideas, comments and questions. That will not be the end of it however, we want this to be an ongoing conversation with all of you. After the Facebook Live, we will consider what you have had to say and offer some ideas for what will come next. So, tune in on Tuesday here:

Recent Articles