Scientists, government, industry gather to commemorate E.T. anniversary

Rally set for Houston marks anniversary of NASA’s discovery of E.T. but mostly it’s about U.S. space policy

More than 3,500 scientists from NASA, the US government and the private sector gathered in Houston on Monday to mark the 25th anniversary of the discovery of intelligent life beyond Earth.

Although the potential for extraterrestrial life to be made evident was obvious by the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1976 publication of Richard Feynman’s E.T. in the Attic that a consensus settled on the existence of intelligent life beyond the Earth and what to do about it.

Ray Villard, the chief technologist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called for a new framework to help NASA’s scientists, and others, find living beings in orbit around other worlds, and establish a “unified front” to redirect public support for such a challenge.

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“It is time for the United States to go where it has never gone before,” Villard said during a keynote address at the Scientists & Engineers Alliance conference.

NASA has concentrated on finding life on the planets orbiting stars other than the sun, such as Alpha Centauri, Alpha Centauri B and 63 Eridani. But it has not explored the possibility of Earth-like planets being inhabited, Villard said.

Ron Reese, a planetary scientist at the space agency, said the agency should expand its exploration of Earth-like planets beyond our solar system. He also argued that space agencies from other countries, including China, should be allowed to compete in space contests within NASA.

Holly Yanek of the Planetary Society points out the E.T. phenomena in an image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Photograph: Kathy Willens/AP

“Catch us in the act if you want. We just want to do our jobs and we don’t mind competing with you,” Yanek said.

At a protest outside the Hilton Anatole hotel, Scott Hubbard, a former head of NASA’s Ames Research Center, called for the US to cease funding its exploration of the moon and Mars, instead redirecting resources into other robotic and manned missions to search for ET.

Another protest group, Moonbats for Peace, carried signs calling for citizens’ rights to settle their own lands in outer space.

NASA has announced three new moon missions. At least one of them, to set up a testbed for near-earth lunar explorers, is scheduled to take place as early as 2021.

In an interview, Villard said he hoped the day could mark the beginning of a national discussion on planetary exploration.

“The stakes are high for the human family,” he said. “Life support in the Earth and on the moon is inadequate.”

About 400 scientists from industry, academia and NASA are taking part in the two-day conference.

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