SETI ChiefJohn Billingham

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Born in England, Billingham earned a medical degree at Oxford, then joined the Royal Air Force as a medical officer. In 1963 he was invited to join a new effort to put a man on the moon: he accepted the job as head of the Environmental Physiology Branch at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, among other things developing the space suits needed for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. In 1965, Billingham transferred to NASA’s main Life Sciences facility, Ames Research Center in California, where he rose to head the Life Science Division. And it was there, after learning about astrobiology from Carl Sagan (“It changed my whole life,” he said), he proposed a new effort to NASA brass: the agency should look for extraterrestrial life, using radio telescopes to scan the universe, as pioneered by astronomer Frank Drake.

Critics mocked the “the great Martian chase,” but Billingham’s SETI project — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — was approved. It took two decades to go online, on October 12, 1992 — Columbus Day. “We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago,” Billingham said when he launched the program. “We accept the challenge of searching for a new world.” But within a year, Congressional critics got federal funding pulled from the project, and since then most U.S. SETI efforts have been privately funded, with millions contributed by tech billionaires such as Microsoft’s Paul Allen, HP’s William Hewlett and David Packard, Intel’s Gordon Moore, and others. Disappointed, Billingham retired from NASA and joined the private SETI Institute as Senior Scientist; in 1995 he became a Member of its Board of Trustees. In 2009, Billingham was inducted into the NASA Ames Hall of Fame as the Father of SETI in NASA. He died on August 4, at 83, without finding proof of extraterrestrial life.

From This is True for 11 August 2013