You will note that I have added exoplanetary search to SETI. There is a reason for this.
In 1981, Senator Proxmire sponsored an amendment to eliminate SETI from NASA. One of my side efforts was, with others, and also the considerable personal suasion of Matsunaga with Proxmire, help Carl Sagan, a colleague of Frank Drake at Cornell, reinstate funding. The involved team set up that fateful meeting with Senator Proxmire, who was of the Dyson school of thought that it was a silly waste of government funds to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I had met Sagan when he served on a panel during my NASA Ames stopover, where he was in a group commenting on the first Viking photos to arrive fromMars. We were the first to see these photos, line by line, being posted unto the auditorium screen in Mountain View before they were released into TV land. Who knows, maybe fuzzy Green Ladies could have shown up. I still remember Sagan pontificating as to why the color of Mars had a salmon-tinge, and commented so in fine scientific detail…except, well into his elocution, a technician sheepishly commented, “Dr. Sagan, we haven’t yet applied the correction filters.” That’s the only time I saw Sagan visibly embarrassed. It turned out that the addition of the filters did not change the salmon hue.
The story has become almost legendary, as Carl Sagan was so successful in his conversation with Senator Proxmire that the following year Congress funded SETI at the level of $1.5 million. This support very slowly grew to a point in the early 1990’s when a ten year, $100 million program, was announced by NASA. A sum of $11-12 million was annually expended through three fiscal years in the early 90’s. The Search for Extraterrestrial Visitation (SETV) web page on “A Scientific Search for Visitation from Extraterrestrial Probes,” is 58 full pages long, with references, abstracts and a fair mix of both SETI and UFO related documents and articles. I should underscore, of course, that the two acronyms should not be confused to be themselves related. SETI is good science, while UFO’s belong in the realm of the twilight zone.
Then, Congress summarily terminated the program in 1992. Explained Stephen Garber of NASA:
On Columbus Day, 1992, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration formally initiated a radio astronomy program called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Less than a year later, Congress abruptly canceled the program. Why? While there was and still is a debate over the likelihood of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life, virtually all informed parties agreed that the SETI program constituted worthwhile, valid science. Yet, fervor over the federal budget deficit, lack of support from other scientists and aerospace contractors and a significant history of unfounded associations with nonscientific elements combined with bad timing in the fall of 1993 to make the program an easy target to eliminate. Thus SETI was a relative anomaly in terms of a small, scientifically valid program that was canceled for political expediency.
Why did Congress kill SETI? Proxmire was no longer in the Senate. Neither was Matsunaga. The identified assassin was Senator Richard Bryan (D-Nevada), who largely avoided discussion with SETI researchers, and even NASA representatives, but it also was the combination of SETI being only a $12 million program, with no major aerospace contractors (this was an efficient effort where equipment was bootstrapped), in a field that bridged subject areas with no effective scientific constituency, with a high giggle (green men) factor, when there was a serious national budget deficit, and at a time when NASA was fighting bruising battles over much larger programs (SETI was one thousandth of the NASA budget). SETI also could only report on the fact that, after decades, it still had not even detected one small promising signal.
The private sector then stepped in to help. In a sense, if the foundation and industrial funding process works, the program will maintain some continuity without the vagaries of Congress. In one parting shot, SETI supporters remarked, “what can you expect from a deliberative body represented by one scientist and four undertakers?” This was true of the 103rd Congress.
Thus, while NASA could continue with search for exoplanets and do astrobiology, it had to completely abandon SETI. NASA hosted two workshops during this period and published TOPS: Toward Other Planetary Systems, which is a good source for information on detecting exoplanets. Thus, I should again explain that, as it is today accepted that there are planets revolving around some stars, the next logical step is to find potential Earth-like planets, so that those microwave dishes can more efficiently detect intelligent signals. NASA is involved with the former, while being careful not to hint that the purpose is SETI-inspired.
The non-NASA SETI people in 1992 then went to the rich, corporations and foundations. The SETI Institute (SETII) itself had been formed in 1984, a year after original congressional funding, to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. Today, in Mountain View, it employs 100 scientists, educators and support staff. There are two scientific leaders:
o Center for SETI Research, where the Bernard Oliver Chair is held by Jill Tarter, who is also the director, and
o Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, where the Carl Sagan Chair, originally held by Christopher Chyba, is now occupied by Scott Hubbard, past director of the Ames Research Center.
Thomas Pierson has served as Chief Executive Officer since the founding, and Frank Drake still serves on the Board of Trustees with emeritus status.
The primary effort of SETII has been Project Phoenix, which was begun in 1995 with private financing, but, equipment “borrowed” from NASA. Congress was cruel, but, either permissive or not too watchful.
Along the way came the 1997 movie Contact, from the book by Carl Sagan, starring Jodie Foster. All the elements were there: God, the afterlife, SETI, attack by religious terrorists. Sounds like Simple Solutions, Book 2. The film starts with the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico listening to space for signals. As is the tradition of SETI, funding was terminated. Jodie Foster sort of played Jill Tarter of SETII, plus there was a blind researcher, Kent Clark, who in real life was Kent Cullers, director of R&D for Project Phoenix. Measurement then shifted to the Very Large Array (photo below) in New Mexico, a more photogenic site representative of dish systems, where signals do arrive and get de-coded. The movie then jumps into the hyperspace of the improbable, but, in many ways, that’s part of why politicians are wary of SETI.
The Targeted Search System of NASA was upgraded in 2002 by SETII to the New Search System, based on a modular architecture and programmable integrated circuits—a bit quicker, with the same search power, but only 20% the room space. In addition to the Arecibo and Jodrell Bank (U.K.) observatories, the initial 42 dishes of the new Allen (financed by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame) Telescope Array, (photo abpve) located 290 miles northeast of San Francisco in Hat Creek, California, a radio-quiet zone, was added to the mix in 2007. Do you need an expensive 350 dish array, as has been brought to the hypothetical table by the Allen Array? If you can afford it, sure, as Paul Allen has committed $25 million to the effort.