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The U.S. version of SETI can be traced to a 1959 paper in the journal Nature by two Cornell University scientists who suggested that by scanning a quiet region of the radio spectrum, we might detect the activities of societies like our own. Earth, after all, had just gone from being an electromagnetically silent orb to one that veritably glowed with radio waves, which traveled endlessly through space.
As Soviet scientists spent piles of government money raising giant radio antennas, a smattering of U.S. astronomers undertook modest sky surveys of their own.
One, Frank Drake, picked up a signal that seemed to be exactly what he was looking for -- but, like other such false alarms since, it disappeared without a trace.
The U.S. government's romance with SETI began in 1971 with a NASA-sponsored academic study called "Project Cyclops." It concluded that U.S. radio-telescope technology had become advanced enough to detect signals broadcast from deep space by a society such as our own. It was entirely feasible to detect radio signals from an alien race, if only we tried hard enough, researchers decided.
Not only was it feasible, the report suggested, but imperative.
"One of the consequences of such extensive heavenly discourse would be the accumulation by all participants of an enormous body of knowledge handed down from race to race from the beginning of the communicative phase. Included in this galactic heritage we might expect to find the totality of the natural and social histories of countless planets and the species that evolved: a sort of cosmic archeological record of our own galaxy. Also included would be astronomical data ... [from] long dead races that would make plain the origin and fate of the universe," the report said, in a section titled "Some Reasons for the Search."
With this in mind, the Cyclops report proposed building a gigantic array of radio telescopes able to scan multiple radio frequencies with space-age sensitivity -- a sort of $10 billion police scanner tuned to the sky.
The idea was denounced as a boondoggle, and the telescopes were never built. Nonetheless, the report did live on as the seminal document in the SETI field, inspiring a generation of American scientists. Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute's sky survey, recalls first running across the report in the late 1970s, while she was a research assistant at UC Berkeley.
"And I read that from cover to cover," Tarter recalls. "I was just fascinated. I had never thought about it. I had never thought about what you could do about answering this very old question, and I just got hooked."
Since NASA was conceived, the search for extraterrestrials has been its unspoken raison d'etre.
Until man stepped onto the moon it wasn't at all clear that the dusty planetoid didn't harbor life. NASA's space probes -- most of which have an underlying mission of seeking life forms --are routinely armed with gold-plated aluminum plaques bearing descriptions of our race, in language another race would be likely to understand.
NASA is currently in the process of pooling billions of dollars into its Origins space program, whose principal missions include finding life outside Earth through the use of space probes and planet-searching telescopes -- but without ET-seeking radio telescopes.
Future missions to Mars are aimed at resolving the question of whether there was, or is, life there. The agency plans to send a probe to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, perhaps to explore the Europan oceans and sift about for life, scientists at NASA Ames Research Center say.
Indeed, NASA's participation in SETI has lent to the search's status as a serious area of science. But that participation has also contributed to SETI's X-Files side, the giggle factor so apparent in congressional discussions of the program.
Myriad mentions of SETI on the Internet appear in UFO chat rooms and on conspiracy-theory Web pages, despite the earnest attempts of SETI researchers to distance themselves from that crowd.
Foremost among the contributors to SETI's sci-fi reputation is the Cy-clops report. Tucked among the study's mathematical equations, charts, and graphs are pages of fanciful thinking, bizarre claims, and promises of messianic salvation in the event aliens are discovered.
"The establishment of interstellar contact may greatly prolong the life expectancy of the race that does so," the report concludes. "Those races that have solved their ecological and sociological problems and are therefore very long lived may already be in mutual contact sharing an inconceivably vast pool of knowledge. Access to this 'galactic heritage' may well prove to be the salvation of any race whose technological prowess qualifies it."
John Billingham, the physician who directed the Project Cyclops study with Hewlett Packard executive Bernard Oliver, spent much of his NASA career obtaining agency funding for a SETI search and eventually became director of the NASA SETI program. After a stint as the SETI Institute's senior scientist, Billingham retired to a ranch in Grass Valley.
With his years of experience as a director of NASA's life sciences division, Billingham served as an effective bureaucratic protector of SETI. But his sometimes less-than-scientific approach to the field has caused discomfort among astrophysicists.