HRMS and the History of SETI

The NASA Observing Program -- A High Resolution Microwave Survey

Detection of an ETI signal would spark intense widespread interest that would in turn prompt new technological advances and highlight a need for organized assessment of the discovery. The discovery would contribute to philosophical discussions and perspectives. Non-detection after a long interval would likewise suggest insights about humanity's situation in the universe, perhaps reflecting an apparent scarcity, uniqueness, and loneliness of intelligent communicating beings.

History and SETI

For several centuries people have accepted the possibility that other worlds house other intelligent beings. Whereas many have been relatively indifferent to this idea, others have sorted themselves into "millennial" and "catastrophist" camps, respectively espousing positive or negative views of the implications of ETI existence. Both views have continued to attract adherents in recent years, these using modern terminology to argue for or against efforts to detect ETI's. Modern arguments about ETI's focus on the Drake equation, which gives highly-varying assessments of the abundance or scarcity of ETI's in our galaxy.

Views of SETI are confused by public perceptions that physical contact between human and ETI cultures must inevitably be involved. Cultural contacts in history have had unfortunate outcomes for many people, prompting negative analogies with SETI. In contrast to prevailing impressions, however, some cultural contacts have resulted in outcomes in which all parties benefitted. In particular, entry of Arab knowledge to medieval Europe, with consequent flowering of European scholarship and subsequent discovery, may be analogous to the Microwave Survey's potential to provide advanced new information without physical contact. There are no historic events that are exactly analogous to an ETI detection. This mandates caution in seeking insights into likely human reactions to such a detection from partially-analogous historic encounters and events.


  1. NASA should examine events that are partially analogous to an ETI detection, drawn from earlier human experience, but should also recognize that these provide only approximate guides for insights about SETI and not precise predictors of the future.
  2. Study should be focused on historic analogies based on the transmission of ideas within and between cultures, rather than on analogies based on physical encounters between cultures.
  3. NASA's educational programs should place SETI within the historical context of humankind's effort to comprehend its place in the universe and to understand the nature and possibility of other intelligent life.