In memoriam: John Billingham, the man who chased ET all over the universe

By Richard Poplak 12 August 2013

The search for extraterrestrial life has not only been conducted by dorks who wear tinfoil hats and insist that Barack Obama is from a planet 10-billion light years away. Dr. John Billingham, considered the father of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, was certain that there was something – or someone – else out there. He spent billions trying to prove that he was correct. By RICHARD POPLAK.

The “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, published in 1990, reads like speculative fiction right up to the point when you realise no, the men who wrote it were actually looking for ET, and yes, they had the means, the money, and the equipment to find him/her/it. Which begs the question: what happens if we do encounter radio signals from afar? Is this merely a sign of the ultimate Other reaching out, performed with the same genuine curiosity as our own incessant bleeping and blurping? Or is it a warning, the first sign that we’re about to be turned into batteries for a race of craven, bug-eyed monsters?

For John Billingham, the man credited with kick-starting NASA’s SETI program and perhaps the most serious alien hunter in the history of our species, the “Declaration” was not theoretical. Run the numbers and it was perfectly likely that in the infinity of the universe, some form of intelligent life was sending signals out into the unknown. Should we intercept those signals, how are we to react? We could easily blow a one-in-a-billion-lifetimes chance. And that wouldn’t do.

Billingham was born in Worcester, England, in 1930. He studied physiology at Oxford, and scored a medical degree through Oxford and Guy’s Hospital in London. He did a long stint in the RAF, following which he was invited to join the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre in Houston, where his primary task was to design spacesuits for our own spacemen. As head of the Environmental Physiology Branch, he was involved in the Mercury, Gemini and the fateful Apollo programs. By 1965 he had moved to the NASA Ames Research Centre in California and was on the trail of ET.

Ames Centre, based in Silicon Valley, was a major driver of innovation for NASA, conducting everything from wind tunnel testing to supercomputer design. But Billingham was primarily interested in an emerging specialty called astrobiology (then exobiology), an interdisciplinary field that conducted searches for habitable planets outside our solar system and contended that we were most likely to encounter extraterrestrial life at the microbiological level. In other words, as mathematically sound as the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe may be, we were better off hedging our bets on amoeba.

That said, Billingham wasn’t about to give up on catching bigger intergalactic fish. He began lobbying within NASA for an institute that would search for radio waves emitted from afar, whether they were accidental or deliberate. The plan was to use massive radio telescopes and scour the great beyond, documenting and interpreting everything they came across. The sound waves may be billions of years old, and come from billions of miles away, but they would be proof positive of the eternal, undying question: are we alone?

It took almost two decades of needling and planning, but in 1992, SETI formally opened its doors. Over the years Dr. Billingham had been padding the halls of NASA and Washington in search of funding, the idea of searching for intelligent life by scientific means had become less absurd. If nothing else, Dr. Billingham’s badgering helped ensconce both astrobiology and ET-watching into the grammar of the space program, even if SETI only lasted a year at NASA. (Doing the math, Congress felt it was a touch extravagant during a recession of 1993.)

Billingham retired from NASA, and took SETI with him. He re-established it as a non-profit, and went searching for both high-tech gear from universities, and high-end money from billionaires. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was one of his primary backers, offering $25-million for the Allen Telescopic Array, which SETI shared with the University of California. The Feds kicked in grants, and SETI now had almost $10-billion worth of gack at its disposal.

And so, man began properly scouring the skies for intelligent life.

Dr. Billingham died on 4 August, and so far as we’re aware he was unsuccessful in his quest. But that doesn’t mean that others aren’t going to keep trying. And they have the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” to help with best practices. It’s a rather lovely document, full of the certainty that we will, one day, find some friends up there and measured by the caution that those friends may not be all that friendly when we do encounter them.

“A confirmed detection of extraterrestrial intelligence,” states the Declaration, “should be disseminated promptly, openly, and widely through scientific channels and public media, observing the procedures in this declaration. The discoverer should have the privilege of making the first public announcement.”

Just imagine, for a second, what such a discovery would mean, what impact it would have in the “public media”. You think the Royal Baby was a big deal? CNN would implode with glee. Such a discovery would re-write the universe as we know it, rattle every assertion we hold dear, and basically scare the living shit out of us. We are not alone, asserted Dr. Billingham. And unlike most of us, he went about raising billions to prove that he was right. Nonetheless, we’re still waiting for a WhatsApp text from the great beyond. It’s a matter of time, even if time, in this case, is measured in the billions of years. DM

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Photo: With millions of dollars in funding pledged by two of the men behind software giant Microsoft, the search for intelligent life on other planets got a big boost August 1, 2000 as officials unveiled plans for a massive new telescope to scan the skies. The Allen Telescope Array – named for Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, who put up $25 million for the project – will be “the world’s most powerful instrument designed to seek out signals from civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy,” the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute said.The seven-dish prototype is the precursor to what will eventually be an array of hundreds, perhaps thousands of small backyard-type satellite dishes linked by sophisticated electronics to create an unparalleled SETI observing instrument. (Reuters)