CLEMSON — Extraterrestrials and Halloween go hand-in-hand, maybe thanks to Orson Welles and “The War of the Worlds” broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938. The dramatic reading of H.G. Wells’ book created panic in parts of America. The scary appeal of alien invaders hasn’t worn off.

As space exploration enters a new frontier – planned missions to Mars, the discovery of exoplanets, unmanned space probes moving deeper into space – the odds of finding alien life on other planets increase.

Even NASA says it will find life in space within 20 years.

But the life we’re most likely to find in the near future won’t look like us, and it won’t be little green men or space invaders. The life will look more like something growing in your shower.

“Microbial slime,” said Kelly Smith, associate professor of philosophy and biological sciences at Clemson University.

A maelstrom of glowing blue gas and dark dust within one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies. Photo courtesy ESA/Hubble and NASA.

Slime doesn’t make a very scary Halloween costume.

However, when we – Earthlings – start exploring other planets and finding life, what are our responsibilities? How will we protect and preserve that life? How will we control the microbes we carry with us?

The issues and questions involved with discovering other life – ethical, political, legal, religious, etc. – are numerous, serious and complicated. Rather than thinking about those issues when they arise, Smith and a small number of other philosophers and ethicists are thinking about them now.

“A lot of people are beginning to realize that talking about life beyond Earth is no longer science fiction, it’s probably the kind of thing that we’re going to have to grapple with in the next 20 to 25 years, and so these questions that nobody really thought about carefully they’re now coming to the fore,” said Smith, who consults with NASA, the European Space Agency and other space-exploration organizations.

He would like to see more Earthlings become interested in the same questions and willing to support funding for space exploration.

“It’s easy to say something like, ‘let’s do space exploration after we’ve solved all the problems on Earth.’ The only problem with that is that we will never solve all the Earth’s problems. So let’s explore the area around us and see what we can do,” he said.


NASA says we will find life on other planets within 20 years, probably in our solar system. The spacecraft Cassini caught this other-worldly view of Saturn and its rings when the planet was backlit by the sun. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.