Editor's note: You can watch the UFO hearing live here on Space.com courtesy of the committee. The hearing will also be livestreamed on YouTube by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee starting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday (July 26).
If you follow the complex and perplexing world of unidentified flying objects, now tied to the term unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, then you're aware that we may be inching toward "full disclosure."
What that means is uncorking the bottle filled to the brim with an elixir of truth, say disclosure activists, that Earth has been on the receiving end of exotic craft of off-world origin. Even more, there are allegations of a covert U.S. government reverse engineering program set up to essentially write an operator's manual on how these alleged anomalous vehicles function.
The drumbeat that the U.S. government is ready to spill the beans on possible alien guests to Earth is louder than ever. But whether it's next week, next year or next decade, what are the social consequences of first contact? Or, at least some outing of historical records documenting evidence of visitors from afar? Are we ready for such a revelation? There appears to be debate on what the ripple effects might be.
According to one recent public poll, a majority of those sampled believe the government may be covering up the truth about UFOs.
Other polls have found that most Americans believe in intelligent life beyond Earth. Indeed, poll data shows an uptick in thinking over the years that there is an off-Earth population of aliens frolicking about out there in the extraterrestrial ether.
But given the specter of full disclosure, are we ready for full-body-contact?
Better data needed
"Quite a bit of work has been done on the societal impact of discovering radio signals from extraterrestrials beaming a message from a planet circling a distant star," said Steven Dick an American astronomer and author noted for his work in the field of astrobiology.
"But that is very different from the consequences if they are actually here in the form of UFOs or UAPs. Science fiction tends toward the dramatic," Dick told Space.com.
"I find it unlikely that the U.S. Government could keep a secret of this magnitude for this long. I am all for studying the anomalous phenomena of UFOs/UAPs. But I am not convinced by the blurry Navy videos that these are spacecraft piloted by ET, or even ET-related artificial intelligence. We need better data," Dick advised.
Worldviews would change
In Dick's opinion, disastrous first contact events with uncontacted cultures are not necessarily the best analogies. There are plenty of beneficial intercultural contacts throughout history, he said, such as trade relations going back to ancient times even beyond the Bronze Age.
"Whether contact is direct or remote and assuming we survive direct contact, I would say what is certain is that our philosophical and theological worldviews would change," said Dick. "We should not expect extraterrestrials to solve all our problems, but the interchange of information would be very interesting!"
As for the question: Are we ready?
"Probably not," Dick said, "but new fields of study like 'astrotheology' and 'astroethics' are laying out the options. There is some consensus that religions will survive, but in greatly altered form to take into account that we are not the moral center of the universe or the most intelligent beings. Some religions will be more adaptable than others," he said.
John Elliott is coordinator of the SETI Post Detection Hub within the School of Computer Science at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Elliott sees the societal impact of discovering extraterrestrial life as a profound "Copernican type" moment for humankind. "The impact is likely to be proportionate to its proximity to us and whether it is intelligent or not. It will be the confirmation that we are not the only life in the universe, and our perceived central 'importance' will receive a significant shift in perspective," he said.
Also, such a discovery will indicate that life is probably common throughout the universe, Elliott said. "To what extent extraterrestrial life is intelligent or has preceded us or is now extinct are other questions. Preparation for such an event is therefore not planning for just one possible scenario but many," he said.
SETI post detection is "probably one of the most multi-disciplinary endeavors humanity has ever undertaken," Elliott added, "not only for assessing the evidence discovered, but also for considering the human social response, impact strategies and protocols."
Elliott said that the hub's primary role at the university is to serve as a dedicated international "home" for facilitating and coordinating research into a coherent post-detection framework, to work on topics ranging from message decipherment and data analytics to development of regulatory protocols, space law and societal impact strategies, "a project that will be ever evolving," he noted.
"The refrain that full disclosure is imminent is one that has been voiced since almost the very start of the flying saucer era in 1947," observed Greg Eghigian, a professor of history and bioethics at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of a forthcoming book on the history of UFOs in the United States.
Eghigian told Space.com that, despite the fact that various states — including the U.S. and the United Kingdom — have released a huge number of classified documents over the years, "it has never satisfied some who will only be content if governments demonstrate that they are withholding information about the extraterrestrial origins of UFOs."
Based on the past, Eghigian said there is little reason to suspect things will be playing out any differently now.
On the topic of "are we ready for revelation," the scenario of actual alien intelligence contact/confirmation is not in fact one scenario but rather multiple scenarios.
"Such an event could play out in any variety of ways — from astronomical observations of what appear to be signs of a once existent technologically advanced civilization to the discovery of alien artifacts in space to visitors appearing here on Earth," Eghigian said.
"Every scenario would likely have considerably different consequences, many of which I suspect would not have much of an effect on most people's lives," Eghigian concluded.