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Saturday, February 18, 2017

THE SEARCH FOR EXTRASOLAR INTELLIGENCE

Like many, the romance of outer space captured my imagination.  A quick history of my experiences with this subject can be found in Earth 2020 and SETI.  In short, I met Jack Billingham (NASA Ames Research Center) and Barney Oliver (Hewlett Packard) in 1972 after they had proposed Project Cyclops.  Ames two years later provided funds for Jim Dator and I to co-host Earth 2020 in Hawaii and we had counterparts along the West Coast.  I invented the term Earth 2020, and the scary part to all this is that the Year 2020 is less than three years away.

Then in 1976 I was selected to join Jack and Barney on Project ORION, a summer faculty workshop at Ames to design the detection system to discover the first extrasolar planet.  Forty years ago the key Search for Exterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) question was...are there other planets around other suns in the universe?  I actually, with some assistance from Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, designed a Planetary Abstracting Telescope (of course, with an appropriate acronym, PAT).  But that's a long story, and all these years later I remain dismayed at the decision of NASA and the field to focus on indirect methods (plus pure-luck transit) like wobble to search for these planets around stars.

I of course kept abreast of developments in space, and in 1980, when I was working for the U.S. Senate helped (through Senators Spark Matsunaga and William Proxmire) Carl Sagan (who I had met a few years earlier while at Ames) gain his first funding for SETI.  In 1993 Senator Richard Bryan killed this $12 million/year budget and barred NASA from doing any SETI research.  I'm still not sure why this even happened, but feel free to read some details.  Thus the SETI Institute in Palo Alto (first incorporated in 1984) gained prominence and has attempted to carry on the work.  

I had this sneaking suspicion that giant aerospace companies connived to kill this "scientific" effort so that they could find the next Apollo Project, which involved a lot more money for hardware, as in 1984 President Ronald Reagan had directed NASA to consider building the International Space Station.  This project sucked up a good part of the space budget, said now to be a white elephant worth $150 billion.  If those funds had gone into SETI, no doubt we'd be lot closer to the Encyclopedia Galactica envisioned by Sagan and Frank Drake.  Perhaps the solution for world peace and key to fusion might now have been detected and deciphered from advanced civilizations, some with billions of years of existence, beaming in these simple solutions for Humanity here on Planet Earth.  We Homo sapiens have been around for maybe only 100,000 years.

In any case, in a posting or two this coming week I will pontificate on the wisdom of Project Mars and a possible fatal flaw for ultimate Start Treks and Star Wars.  While the end of the Cold War largely eliminated the need for ambitious (meaning expensive) enterprises in outer space for the time being (a century certainly, and perhaps millennia), we are what we are, so what might be an optimal pathway for Humanity beyond Planet Earth?

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