Are we investing trillions on what matters?
President Biden recently signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022. The defense budget represents the amount of money that the nation allocates to defending itself against the threat from other nations. For 2022, it is $768 billion, a hundred times more than the budget of the largest scientific projects, such as the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope. Since these projects took decades to accomplish and involved multiple nations, one concludes that the monetary priority of defense-related concerns is currently thousands of times higher than the largest science projects that humanity contemplates.
By contrast, the Galileo Project, which I lead, engages in a scientific search for objects near Earth that might have been artificially produced by an extraterrestrial technological civilization. Its first telescope system will be assembled on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory in the coming months and copies of it will be subsequently placed in many other locations.
Let’s imagine a situation where one of these telescopes will discover indisputable evidence for extraterrestrial equipment. This finding would obviously be of great scientific and international importance, not adhering to the borders between nations. As a result, we might realize that we are being childlike in focusing on conflicts among nations while something bigger more than likely exists out there.
Now, let’s go one step further and imagine that the political system will subsequently change its priorities by realizing that learning about more advanced neighbors on our cosmic block is of higher priority than national security. If a trillion dollars per year was allocated to learning more about our cosmic neighborhood, what could we do with it?
The first action item would have been to passively observe our cosmic environment with new telescope systems. This effort would constitute something like a scaled-up version of the Galileo Project, using bigger telescope apertures and more observatories around the globe and in space. They would provide us with new scientific information of higher fidelity and quantity, as we look around into space.
The second agenda item would have been to design new space missions that will explore the environment far from Earth. A robot like NASA’s Perseverance Rover explores the surface of Mars by following orders from engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. More ambitious space missions could launch autonomous systems, equipment with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning capabilities. With current propulsion technologies, voyages exploring interstellar space — light years beyond the solar system, would take tens of thousands of years to reach their destinations and cannot be guided by timely communication from Earth. Hundreds of billions per year could be spent on developing propulsion, communication, AI and 3D-printing technologies that will be used in these expeditions and then sending numerous probes to explore our cosmic neighborhood and report back. The search for new information will likely accelerate over time. The more we will spend on searching for intelligent neighbors, the more questions our findings might raise.
Finally, we will need to consider societal implications by establishing an organization that will represent Earth, and by exploring the reorganization of human society on Earth as a result of the broader perspective we gain by retrieving new information about our extraterrestrial neighbors.
The scientific exploration of other technological civilizations in interstellar space will lift our spirit away from the pitiful mudwrestling on social media and international politics. There might be something bigger out there, and we better learn more about it by changing our priorities.
The bottom line is simple: Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary funding. We could invest a trillion dollars a year in what may ultimately matter the most after the sun will die and boil off all the oceans on Earth. As Oscar Wilde noted, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos,” both published in 2021.