Reprinted from Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life among the Stars, by Lee Billings. With permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Lee Billings, 2013.
On a hillside near Santa Cruz, California, a split-level ranch house sat in a stand of coast redwoods, the same color as the trees. Three small climate-controlled greenhouses nestled alongside the house next to a diminutive citrus grove, and a satellite dish was turned to the heavens from the manicured back lawn. Sunlight filtered into the living room through a cobalt stained-glass window, splashing oceanic shades across an old man perched on a plush couch. Frank Drake looked blue. He leaned back, adjusted his large bifocal glasses, folded his hands over his belly, and assessed the fallen fortunes of his chosen scientific field: SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
“Things have slowed down, and we’re in bad shape in several ways,” Drake rumbled. “The money simply isn’t there these days. And we’re all getting old. A lot of young people come up and say they want to be a part of this, but then they discover there are no jobs. No company is hiring anyone to search for messages from aliens. Most people don’t seem to think there’s much benefit to it. The lack of interest is, I think, because most people don’t realize what even a simple detection would really mean. How much would it be worth to find out we’re not alone?” He shook his head, incredulous, and sunk deeper in the couch. Besides a few extra wrinkles and pounds, at eighty-one years old Drake was scarcely distinguishable from the young man who more than half a century earlier conducted the first modern SETI search. In 1959, Drake was an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. He was only twenty-nine then, lean and hungry, yet he already possessed the calm self-assurance and silver hair of an elder statesman. At work one day, Drake began to wonder just what the site’s newly built 85‑foot- wide radio dish was capable of. He performed some back‑of‑the- envelope calculations based on the dish’s sensitivity and transmitting power, then probably double-checked them with a growing sense of glee. Drake’s figuring showed that if a twin of the 85‑footer existed on a planet orbiting a star only a dozen light-years away, it could transmit a signal that the dish in Green Bank could readily receive. All that was needed to shatter Earth’s cosmic loneliness was for the receiving radio telescope to be pointed at the right part of the sky, at the right time, listening at the right radio frequency.
“That was true then, and it’s true today,” Drake told me. “Right now there could well be messages from the stars flying right through this room. Through you and me. And if we had the right receiver set up properly, we could detect them. I still get chills thinking about it.” It didn’t take long for Drake to discuss the wild prospect with his superiors at NRAO. They granted him a small budget to conduct a simple search. During the spring of 1960, Drake periodically pointed the 85‑footer at two nearby Sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, to listen for alien civilizations that might be transmitting radio signals toward Earth. Drake called the effort “Project Ozma,” after the princess who ruled over the imaginary Land of Oz in Frank Baum’s popular series of children’s books. “Like Baum, I, too, was dreaming of a land far away, peopled by strange and exotic beings,” he would later write. Project Ozma recorded little more than interstellar static, but still inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to begin seriously considering how to discover and communicate with technological civilizations that might exist around other stars. Over the years, astronomers used radio telescopes around the world to conduct hundreds of searches, looking at thousands of stars on millions of narrowband radio frequencies. But not one delivered unassailable evidence of life, intelligence, or technology beyond our planet. The silence of the universe was unbroken. And so for more than fifty years Drake and his disciples played the roles of not only scientists but also salespeople. For the entirety of the discipline’s existence, SETI groups had been searching nearly as ardently for sources of funding as they had for signals from extraterrestrials.