Mazlan Othman, an Alien Ambassador, Appointed by the United Nations

Photo courtesy IISD.

Call me neurotic, but I've actually worried about who would be the first person to communicate with aliens should we make contact with them. A military leader seems to send the wrong message right off the bat, while a politician will be partisan and thinking "photo op." An average person might not have the skills to communicate well (and if Bebo's recent challenge to its users to create a first contact message is any clue, that's true), and a religious leader will leave out whatever part of humanity doesn't believe what he or she does. So who to choose? Without a pre-appointed person, initial communication with extraterrestrials could come down to whoever steps up to the plate first.

The recent choice of the United Nations to appoint astrophysicist Mazlan Othman as space ambassador will help me rest easier; not only is she a pioneering woman (the first to graduate from her program at the University of Otago in New Zealand in 1981), she has the experience. Her previous post at the U.N. was as director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which, according to Wikipedia, entails dealing with "... issues of international cooperation in space, prevention of collisions and space debris, use of space-based remote sensing platforms for sustainable development, coordination of space law between countries, and the risks posed by near-earth asteroids, among other topics." And unlike Stephen Hawking, who sees aliens as a possible threat to humanity (seeing their dealings with us as possibly akin to Columbus' introduction to Native Americans), Othman is said to be a moderate in her ideas about what to say to the first aliens we meet.

She sounds calm and sensible, saying in a speech to her colleagues recently, “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 U.N. is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”

The United Nations has long held jurisdiction over many areas of space exploration, communication and possible settlement, and makes many of the international laws that govern how space is used (and shared) by space-faring countries. Its Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has been meeting since 1958 and now includes 69 member countries. So if we do make contact with aliens one day — which becomes more of a possibility as scientists continue to discover new stars and possibly habitable planets orbiting them — we will be as prepared as we can be.