John Billingham, Seeker of Extraterrestrials, Dies at 83
Dr. John Billingham, who as a NASA official in the 1970s helped persuade the federal government to use radio telescopes to scour the universe for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, even as critics mocked the idea, died on Aug. 4 in Grass Valley, Calif. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by his sons, Robert and Graham.
Dr. Billingham, an Englishman who earned a medical degree at Oxford and helped design spacesuits for astronauts in the 1960s, never found the evidence he was looking for. But he did help establish the validity of the quest.
“We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago,” Dr. Billingham said on Oct. 12, 1992, when after two decades of planning and maneuvering NASA formally began its search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known by the acronym SETI. “We accept the challenge of searching for a new world.”
The effort, which Dr. Billingham led as chief of the life sciences division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, involved using huge radio telescopes to search for radio signals — either deliberate intergalactic flares or incidental noise — emitted by other technologically advanced civilizations that might be billions of years old and billions of light-years away.
“The whole picture is that we are the newcomers on the block, that they’re out there, other civilizations that are much older than we are,” Frank Drake, a radio astronomer who in 1960 started seeking signals from beyond the solar system, said in an interview. “Anybody we find would probably be way ahead of us in longevity and probably in sophistication.”
Yet a year after NASA began the project, SETI lost its federal financing amid Congressional assertions that it was a waste of taxpayer money — “a great Martian chase” in the words of one critic, Senator Richard H. Bryan, a Nevada Democrat.
Dr. Billingham retired not long after, but neither he nor SETI was finished.
Operating as the nonprofit SETI Institute, based in Mountain View, Calif., Dr. Billingham and a team of scientists cobbled together financing from universities and high-tech billionaires to keep the effort going. The Allen Telescopic Array, jointly owned by the institute and the University of California, Berkeley, is named for Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, who gave $25 million to the cause.
Although the federal government no longer pays SETI scientists to search for intergalactic radio signals, federal grants have helped pay for some of the SETI equipment used in recent years. Government emphasis has shifted toward another endeavor Dr. Billingham supported, which is also pursued by scientists at the institute: the rapidly expanding field of astrobiology, which includes searching for extraterrestrial life at the most microbial level, not just forms that might transmit radio signals.
Dr. Billingham first learned of astrobiology, then called exobiology, in 1968, through the work of the astronomer and author Carl Sagan and others.
“It changed my whole life,” he once wrote.
Three years later, he recruited Barney Oliver, the research chief of Hewlett-Packard, to host a symposium at which they and others sketched out a plan for using a $10 billion array of giant radio telescopes to search for extraterrestrials. They called it Project Cyclops.
“We are almost certainly not the first intelligent species to undertake the search,” they wrote in a proposal that spanned more than 200 pages. “The first races to do so undoubtedly followed their listening phase with long transmission epochs, and so have later races to enter the search. Their perseverance will be our greatest asset in our beginning listening phase.”
Dr. Billingham was born on March 18, 1930, in Worcester, England. He completed his medical studies at Oxford in 1954 and later spent six years as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force. He joined NASA in 1963, becoming chief of its environmental physiology branch later that year at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He moved to the Ames Research Center in 1965 and spent the next several years in NASA’s biotechnology divisions while he built support for SETI.
In addition to his sons, he is survived by four grandchildren. His wife, the former Margaret Macpherson, also a physician, died in 2009.
SETI was not formally incorporated into Dr. Billingham’s official job title at NASA until March 1991, when he became chief of the space agency’s Office of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. When financing was eliminated three years later, he became a senior scientist at the SETI Institute.
One of Dr. Billingham’s concerns was how to respond to a radio signal from space. To answer the question, he helped draft the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” The document allowed that a proper response would depend on the signal received. Only so much advance planning is possible.
“A lot of people think this is silly, but we need to give a lot of thought to a reply,” Dr. Billingham said in 1992. “It is not a question just for scientists and engineers. Already we agree on one rule: Don’t reply unless you have undertaken extensive international consultation.”
Quelle: The New York Times
John Billingham, who has died aged 83, was a former RAF officer who headed Nasa’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) programme at the Ames Research Center in California.
The hunt for intelligent extraterrestrial life began in 1956 when Frank Drake, a young astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, pointed a 25ft radio telescope at the Pleiades, 440 light years from Earth, and saw two spikes on the read-out that should not have been there. Though the spikes proved to be a false alarm, Drake realised that if there was intelligent life out there, capable of sending signals, the new technology of radio telescopy could pick them up.
In 1970 Billingham, an expert in space medicine at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, commissioned an engineering study that proposed the agency should establish a Seti programme. The project, christened Project Cyclops, envisioned an array of antennae that would scan multiple frequencies. Though Nasa never formally proposed Project Cyclops (its $10 billion price tag proved its undoing), it began funding small projects to study extraterrestrial intelligence, and in 1976 Billingham was appointed head of the Extraterrestrial Research Division at Ames.
However Nasa’s Seti programme was beset by problems from the start. In 1978 Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, famous for his “Golden Fleece” awards (given to government projects that he deemed wasteful), awarded a “Golden Fleece of the Month” to Nasa’s Seti initiative and persuaded Congress to reject a $2 million appropriation for the project. In 1982, after some discreet lobbying, Billingham managed to insert Seti into a federal budget proposal, thereby arousing the wrath of Senator Proxmire. To the rescue came the astronomer and popular science writer, Carl Sagan, then at the height of his fame. As a result of his lobbying, Proxmire, who fancied himself a progressive, dropped his opposition to the programme.
During the 1980s Nasa devoted very little money to Seti, but in 1990 Billingham got the go-ahead for a $100 million 10-year Seti project with two distinct parts. The first was an all-sky survey that would scan the heavens for extraterrestrial signals. The second was a targeted search that would take time to examine individual star systems. Its inauguration was Columbus Day, October 12 1992, the symbolic beginning of a new age of exploration. “We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago,” Billingham announced grandly. “We accept the challenge of searching for a new world.”
But the press and public, cynical after decades of UFO “sightings”, had broadly concluded that, outside of The X files, Star Trek and The War of the Worlds, there really was no one “out there”. Much fun was had at Billingham’s expense when it emerged that Nasa was discussing an international protocol to guide politicians on how they should respond in the event of aliens making contact. “Maybe Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner should talk to them,” one newspaper suggested. “They always did a great job on Star Trek with that 'We are from different worlds but respect your culture’ speech.”
But Billingham was having none of it: “A lot of people think this is silly, but we need to give a lot of thought to a reply,” he explained. “It is not a question just for scientists and engineers.”
Unfortunately for Billingham, other politicians were willing to fill the gap left by Proxmire, who had retired from the Senate in 1989. In 1990 Silvio Conte, a congressman from Massachusetts, decried the search for “little green men with misshapen heads” at a time “when good people of America can’t find affordable housing”. Holding up headlines such as “Space Aliens Stealing Our Frogs” and “Magic Ray from UFO Cures 22 People”, Conte noted that, if Billingham was looking for extraterrestrials, it would be a lot cheaper to buy a tabloid.
Although Nasa’s Seti programme survived Conte’s barbs, it did not survive the opposition of Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada. In 1993, at the height of the national concern over budget deficits, Bryan persuaded the Senate to end federal funding.
Bryan had killed Nasa’s Seti, but he had by no means killed Seti itself. Operating as the Seti Institute, a non-profit institute based in Mountain View, California, Billingham and a team of scientists cobbled together financing from universities and from private benefactors to keep the programme going and to build the Allen Telescopic Array (after Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, who gave $25 million to the cause).
Though it has detected no little green men as yet, the Seti Institute has achieved respectability through discoveries in other areas — notably so-called extremophiles and exoplanets. Extremophiles are microbial organisms that can survive in extreme environments — such as inside nuclear reactors, in rock or in super-hot deep-ocean vents. Their existence — unknown until a few years ago — shows that life can survive in many more places than scientists used to think possible. Exoplanets are simply planets outside our solar system. These were assumed to exist, but one was not actually detected until 1995. Now astronomers are finding hundreds more.
These discoveries have led to a new field of astrobiology, the speculative study of life beyond Earth which includes searching for extraterrestrial life at the most microbial level, while the exoplanets are being investigated by Nasa’s Kepler mission, launched in 2009. As well as listening out for signals from ET, today’s Seti Institute is running projects in planetary science, exobiology, and related areas.
But Billingham always lived in hope that man would one day find intelligent life on other planets. In 2007 he resigned from an extraterrestrial study group set up by the International Academy of Astronautics, concerned over a lack of public discussion about the possible consequences of sending signals deep into space. “We’re talking about initiating communication with other civilisations, but we know nothing of their goals, capabilities or intent,” he warned. “Who will speak for Earth if aliens do reply? Are we inviting Armageddon?’’
John Billingham was born on March 18 1930, in Worcester. After studying Medicine at Oxford University, he spent six years as a medical officer in the RAF before joining Nasa in 1963 as head of its environmental physiology branch at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, helping to design spacesuits for astronauts. He moved to the Ames Research Center in 1965 and spent the next few years in Nasa’s biotechnology divisions while he worked on Seti. He formally became head of Nasa’s Office of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in 1991. When funding was withdrawn in 1993 he became a senior scientist at the Seti Institute.
His wife, Margaret, died in 2009. Their two sons survive him.
John Billingham, born March 18 1930, died August 4 2013