Heavenly Secrets

Keeping Congress Out of ContactDuring the summer of 1996, a group of Hollywood producers and actors spent a week mingling with scientists at the SETI Institute, a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting a systematic radio survey of the 1,000 nearest stars likely to host planets.The filmmakers wanted to know the sort of clothing the people engaged in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence wore, the equipment they used, and the other subtle details used to establish 1990s cinematic verisimilitude. They watched SETI Institute scientists at their mundane offices in Mountain View as they conducted the day-to-day signal-processing work that consumes a SETI researcher's time.Jodie Foster even spent two days accompanying an astrophysicist named Jill Tarter as she worked at the 1,000-foot-diameter radio telescope built into a limestone sinkhole at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.The Hollywood types were preparing to create the movie Contact, in which Foster plays an idealistic female scientist who defies her superiors and risks her career to prove that alien life forms wish to communicate with Earth. Little did the Tinseltown earthlings know how much verisimilitude they would pack into their movie.As Contact was being produced, bureaucrats and scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ames Research Center in Mountain View were laying the groundwork to continue their search for alien life -- in defiance of efforts by Congress to shut them down.After an extended run as a NASA project, funding for the $12-million-per-year SETI project was halted in 1992, at the behest of a Nevada congressman who chided it as a quest for "little green men." NASA managed to sneak another year of funding under the nose of Congress by changing the name from Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence to "High Resolution Microwave Survey." But congressional aides quickly caught on.After spending $58 million developing receivers and other gear, NASA was told in 1993 to completely phase out all remnants of the SETI program, whatever its name.The SETI scientists were not to be put down. In a comeback that made national headlines, the SETI quest managed to continue, thanks to donations from a variety of Silicon Valley business titans. To mark the search's rise from the ashes of congressional meddling, it was christened Project Phoenix.But government documents released this year show that scientists and bureaucrats may have done more than just gone begging to see that their quest prevailed. They may have willfully -- from one point of view, heroically -- defied Congress as part of efforts to continue the search.The SETI researchers' battle to continue their search was inspired by high moral principles: an almost religious faith in the unknown, a fierce defense of their own version of truth, and a heartfelt conviction that their efforts would benefit mankind.And well after Congress drew the curtain on the project, NASA bought equipment it specifically intended to loan to SETI researchers, paid half the salary of one prominent SETI scientist, and inappropriately moved NASA equipment to the private-sector SETI Institute."ARC [Ames Research Center] continued to support a research effort that Congress had specifically terminated," a just-released NASA inspector general's report says. The report details $1.3 million in unauthorized NASA support for the alien search, most of which went for the purchase of a $600,000 high-speed data recorder. Internal NASA memos say the recorder was bought for an explicit purpose -- so it could be loaned to the SETI Institute to process SETI radio signals.Following the inquiry by government investigators, the recorder was reassigned to another -- legal -- NASA-sponsored project, and the Office of Inspector General said in a follow-up report that NASA appears to have stopped all funding of the search for space aliens.NASA spokesman Michael Mewhinney did not respond to a written request for comment on the inspector general's report, saying only that "NASA does not currently fund SETI research."But that's not precisely true.In 1984 SETI researchers performed a subtle accounting maneuver that now allows the institute to quietly collect roughly $1 million per year in NASA money in the form of infrastructure fees charged to NASA academic grants. Though the money goes toward paying SETI Institute expenses, none of the grants has anything to do with searching the skies for alien radio signals, thus staying within the letter of the congressional SETI ban.While $1 million is a relative pittance, the institute's resulting academic status lends prestige, and stability, to the search for alien life. The maneuver doesn't cost NASA a cent; the agency would be paying the fees to universities if the money wasn't flowing to the SETI Institute.From an intergalactic perspective, everybody wins.Except, perhaps, a few anti-SETI congressmen.And unless, of course, nothing is out there after all, and the search for contact turns out to be no more rewarding or substantive than a flash-in-the-pan summer feature film.The ScienceDuring NASA's heyday -- the Cold War 1960s -- SETI was a high-profile branch of science and the Soviet Union led the field. If plodding on the moon would be a giant step for mankind, the unabashed reasoning went, communicating with space aliens would be the equivalent of winning the New York Marathon.The U.S. version of SETI can be traced to a 1959 paper in the journal Nature by two Cornell University scientists who suggested that by scanning a quiet region of the radio spectrum, we might detect the activities of societies like our own. Earth, after all, had just gone from being an electromagnetically silent orb to one that veritably glowed with radio waves, which traveled endlessly through space.As Soviet scientists spent piles of government money raising giant radio antennas, a smattering of U.S. astronomers undertook modest sky surveys of their own.One, Frank Drake, picked up a signal that seemed to be exactly what he was looking for -- but, like other such false alarms since, it disappeared without a trace.The U.S. government's romance with SETI began in 1971 with a NASA-sponsored academic study called "Project Cyclops." It concluded that U.S. radio-telescope technology had become advanced enough to detect signals broadcast from deep space by a society such as our own. It was entirely feasible to detect radio signals from an alien race, if only we tried hard enough, researchers decided.Not only was it feasible, the report suggested, but imperative."One of the consequences of such extensive heavenly discourse would be the accumulation by all participants of an enormous body of knowledge handed down from race to race from the beginning of the communicative phase. Included in this galactic heritage we might expect to find the totality of the natural and social histories of countless planets and the species that evolved: a sort of cosmic archeological record of our own galaxy. Also included would be astronomical data ... [from] long dead races that would make plain the origin and fate of the universe," the report said, in a section titled "Some Reasons for the Search."With this in mind, the Cyclops report proposed building a gigantic array of radio telescopes able to scan multiple radio frequencies with space-age sensitivity -- a sort of $10 billion police scanner tuned to the sky.The idea was denounced as a boondoggle, and the telescopes were never built. Nonetheless, the report did live on as the seminal document in the SETI field, inspiring a generation of American scientists. Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute's sky survey, recalls first running across the report in the late 1970s, while she was a research assistant at UC Berkeley."And I read that from cover to cover," Tarter recalls. "I was just fascinated. I had never thought about it. I had never thought about what you could do about answering this very old question, and I just got hooked."The GiggleSince NASA was conceived, the search for extraterrestrials has been its unspoken raison d'etre.Until man stepped onto the moon it wasn't at all clear that the dusty planetoid didn't harbor life. NASA's space probes -- most of which have an underlying mission of seeking life forms -- are routinely armed with gold-plated aluminum plaques bearing descriptions of our race, in language another race would be likely to understand.NASA is currently in the process of pooling billions of dollars into its Origins space program, whose principal missions include finding life outside Earth through the use of space probes and planet-searching telescopes -- but without ET-seeking radio telescopes.Future missions to Mars are aimed at resolving the question of whether there was, or is, life there. The agency plans to send a probe to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, perhaps to explore the Europan oceans and sift about for life, scientists at NASA Ames Research Center say.Indeed, NASA's participation in SETI has lent to the search's status as a serious area of science. But that participation has also contributed to SETI's X-Files side, the giggle factor so apparent in congressional discussions of the program.Myriad mentions of SETI on the Internet appear in UFO chat rooms and on conspiracy-theory Web pages, despite the earnest attempts of SETI researchers to distance themselves from that crowd.Foremost among the contributors to SETI's sci-fi reputation is the Cyclops report. Tucked among the study's mathematical equations, charts, and graphs are pages of fanciful thinking, bizarre claims, and promises of messianic salvation in the event aliens are discovered."The establishment of interstellar contact may greatly prolong the life expectancy of the race that does so," the report concludes. "Those races that have solved their ecological and sociological problems and are therefore very long lived may already be in mutual contact sharing an inconceivably vast pool of knowledge. Access to this 'galactic heritage' may well prove to be the salvation of any race whose technological prowess qualifies it."John Billingham, the physician who directed the Project Cyclops study with Hewlett Packard executive Bernard Oliver, spent much of his NASA career obtaining agency funding for a SETI search and eventually became director of the NASA SETI program. After a stint as the SETI Institute's senior scientist, Billingham retired to a ranch in Grass Valley.With his years of experience as a director of NASA's life sciences division, Billingham served as an effective bureaucratic protector of SETI. But his sometimes less-than-scientific approach to the field has caused discomfort among astrophysicists.Billingham is the world's most prominent advocate for the creation of an international protocol for communication with extraterrestrial life. He chairs the SETI committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a pseudo-academic body that concerns itself with space-related topics. Billingham is now seeking to convince the nations of the world to sign an agreement to limit communications with aliens to officially approved messages.His determination to create an Earth-to-space communications protocol has had some odd effects. A Berkeley public television production company hoped to end a documentary it was preparing with a segment in which digitally reformulated e-mails from viewers would be broadcast live via radio telescope to the nearest star known to have planets."It was very cool. I was excited by the possibility of doing this," says Steve Most, a producer who worked on the documentary.The producers arranged to use Stanford University's radio telescope to send a transmission. They would pay the university for staff time and use of the instrument, according to the plan.Then they ran into Billingham's protocol."There was a strong response that under no circumstance should you do such a thing," says Ivan Linscott, the Stanford research associate who runs the school's radio telescope. Linscott contacted acquaintances in the SETI field, who told him it is the institute's policy to oppose unauthorized communications directed at space aliens. "It turns out that there is this protocol which fundamentally says that no individual should represent the Earth in an unauthorized voice," Linscott says.The Drake EquationProtocol or no, whether or not you believe it is possible for aliens to listen to earthly broadcasts -- or vice versa -- is not, at this point, a fact issue. It is entirely a matter of faith.In the SETI field, this faith is quantified with a mathematical equation formulated by astrophysicist Frank Drake, who conducted the first U.S. SETI search during the 1960s.The equation essentially says that by knowing the rate of formation of sunlike stars; the fraction of those stars with planets; the number of "Earths" per planetary system; the fraction of those planets where life exists; the fraction of planets where intelligence and technology develops; and the typical lifetime of technological civilizations -- then we would know the number of alien civilizations able to communicate with us.The SETI faithful say that the recent discovery of extrasolar planets -- some of which are estimated to be near the size and temperature of Earth -- has moved us a step closer to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.SETI skeptics point out that extrasolar planetary research has led to the discovery of a heretofore unpredicted type of planet -- a huge, Jupiter-like orb spinning impossibly close to its sun. Ergo, skeptics say, Earth-like planets may be rarer than the Project Cyclops report predicted they would be.To predict the fraction of planets where life exists, SETI adherents cite experiments showing that when chemical mixtures similar to the primordial atmosphere of Earth are zapped with ionizing radiation, amino acids and sugars -- the building blocks of proteins and life -- are created.But proteins are not life. And scientists, try as they might -- even with the advantage of evolutionary hindsight -- have not managed to produce so much as a fungus.To SETI supporters, because intelligence has improved man's evolutionary fitness, intelligent life must have prevailed elsewhere as well. But modern anthropologists don't unanimously support the claim that brains equal evolutionary brawn. Man's intelligent earthly brethren -- dolphins and apes -- are endangered. Grasses and insects, meanwhile, thrive.So all the scientific arguments that exist fail to obscure the fact that the rationale for SETI can be summed up in the central premise of Carl Sagan's novel Contact. Life on Earth is common, and the universe is vast; therefore we cannot possibly be alone.The FaithWhen intergalactic historians sift through the detritus of end-of-the-millennium America, they may find their age's faithful hero in Dr. Kent Cullers.The producers of Contact were so inspired by the blind signal-processing engineer that they wrote a part into the movie specifically based on his character. And while the NASA inspector general implicated the entire agency in denouncing efforts to circumvent the congressional ban on SETI funding, Cullers was the one man the report mentioned by name.Cullers disputes the report's claims, saying the purchase of a data recorder criticized by the inspector general was perfectly valid, because the recorder had a wide range of uses that went beyond SETI work. The report is not evidence of scandal, he says, but a ritualistic act of hand-wringing by NASA officials who were terrified that criticisms of the SETI program could jeopardize other agency programs."We certainly didn't do anything illegal," Cullers says.And Dr. Cullers is no delinquent. Successor to John Billingham as the SETI Institute's senior scientist, Cullers may bring a new age of sobriety and respectability to SETI research. A brilliant mathematician, Cullers has developed radio-signal processing algorithms useful to other areas of astrophysics, and even medicine. Rather than alarm -- and disappoint -- observers with claims that his project will find aliens within the decade, he concedes that SETI will be lucky to find results within the next 100 years -- despite advances in computers and other technology that will make the search astronomically more powerful during coming years.Cullers has been irrepressible since childhood, his friends recall.He excelled at judo, earned stellar grades, built his own ham radio, and served as an inspiration to his friends. Bank of America Vice President Vernon Crowder, who was a close friend to Cullers in high school, recalls calling him out of the blue 10 years ago after they hadn't spoken for 20 years."I called him to say he had a big impact on my life," says Crowder, now a vice president and agricultural economist for Bank of America. "Kent was known as a genius. When I told him I was smart, too, he basically said, 'Show me,' and challenged me to do better on my grades, the way I spoke, and the way I conducted myself."While I'm not sure whether he was intending to motivate me, it was very motivational."Algorithms developed by Cullers are now used by NASA for astronomical signal detection in the visible spectrum, and may have applications in detecting breast cancer."Of course I have a purpose in mind: I want to find ET. That excites me particularly," Cullers explains. "But I'm actually just doing weak signal processing and developing new methods for doing it."The Final EraFor those who do believe, the quest for life beyond Earth does indeed appear to have entered its final phase. With astrophysicist Jane Tarter at Project Phoenix's helm and Cullers as the lead scientist, SETI appears to have left behind its era of fanciful musing. Indeed, SETI researchers around the globe are now holding periodic meetings to lay the foundation for a new era of SETI research."The Cyclops report is 30 years old," Tarter says. "It's time to try some new ideas."Possibilities include searching different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum -- including light -- for evidence of beacons emanating from alien societies.Researchers are encouraged by the rapid advance of computer technology. SETI researchers don't actually "listen" to radio signals in the way Jodie Foster's character did in the movie Contact. Rather, refrigerator-size banks of computer processors examine millions of frequencies along the radio spectrum in the hopes that somewhere they might find an unusual squeal.So for SETI researchers, each time the speed of Silicon Valley microprocessors doubles -- historically every 18 months -- so does the size of the observable universe.Researchers at UC Berkeley's Project Serendip have piggybacked a radio receiver onto the 1,000-foot radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, crunching the signals through racks of microprocessors equivalent to 200 of the world's largest supercomputers.The Berkeley project has lent its computer designs to SETI searches at Harvard, in Italy, and in Argentina -- each of which has developed its own version of SETI.But the SETI Institute is home to the most ambitious plans.Without the yearly Damocles sword of congressional review, the layers and layers of NASA bureaucracy, or the meddling of NASA overseers, the institute's researchers are now going about the task of planning decades into the future.The institute has hired a development director to seek additional charity from Silicon Valley millionaires, and Executive Director Thomas Pierson hopes to acquire a perpetual endowment of $100 million by about the year 2008. The institute now operates on around half the $12 million per year it spent while at NASA, officials say. If the endowment drive is successful, the SETI Institute will survive the hundred or so years researchers say it may take to find ET.Foremost among the institute's plans is a kilometer-wide telescope field made from hundreds of armchair-size satellite dishes that may be located near Mount Lassen. As signal-processing capacity increases due to growing computer speed, the institute could correspondingly increase collecting power by increasing the size of its satellite field."The goal is to build it for under $200 million," Tarter says.Alternately, the institute could collaborate in one of several megatelescope projects now on the drawing board around the world.Tarter has even held discussions with NASA officials about improving the Deep Space Network, the worldwide array of radio telescopes NASA uses to communicate with its interplanetary spacecraft missions.Tarter would increase the network's power, and perhaps save the agency money, by linking it to her planned kilometer-wide telescope field.Institute personnel went to NASA to talk about the plan, "but it was just so awkward because SETI is involved," Tarter says. "It is just so painful for them still."Contact ... When it first comes, it will arrive as a narrow line amid a cacophony of dots, a rhythmic whine amid a sea of hiss, or perhaps a series of tiny, momentary flashes.There won't be much fuss at first. Scientists detect hundreds, even thousands, of such interstellar signals each year, and so far, they've all turned out to be false alarms. So at first the anomaly will be treated as routine. The scientists will check a nearby spotter telescope aimed at the same star system, then they'll ask colleagues in Australia, Italy, Argentina, and elsewhere to point their barn-size radio telescopes in the same direction. When multiple observations prove the signal isn't a wayward satellite, an earthly radio broadcast, or some other terrestrial nuisance, the researchers will have answered the question that has pestered humankind from the dawn of thought:Are we alone?If the musings of the more enthusiastic scientists who conduct the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence are any guide, once we know we have company in the universe, astonishing advances will occur. Then, because the civilization communicating with Earth will most certainly be thousands of years more advanced than our own, we will instantly become privy to the wisdom of the ages. That civilization will have learned how to cure disease, outlive nuclear weapons, and solve the countless other quandaries haunting our species, so life expectancy on Earth will skyrocket.Earthlings will wire into an intergalactic Internet, through which far-flung civilizations communicate across time and space. As earthlings are freed from planetary tethers, eons of alien science will make us immortal, omniscient, and transcendentally wise.And later, intergalactic historians will tell the story of the urgent quest -- SETI -- that gave birth to humanity's final, everlasting age. The historians will tell how the space agency from the Earth's most powerful realm, America, designed a plan to search for space aliens in Earth Year 1971, and then began a taxpayer-funded quest years later. They will explain that a shortsighted legislative body -- a cacophonous assemblage known as Congress -- ordered a stop to governmental funding of SETI in 1993.But the scholars of universal history will also describe how a troupe of wily public scientists secretly defied the American Congress, first using government money to continue their extraterrestrial search and ultimately moving the search to a private organization, even as government funds were still used. The historians will describe how stalwart SETI scientists suffered more than 30 years of astral silence, the skepticism of their peers, and the condescension of government bureaucrats -- until contact was made.Or Silence?Or perhaps the line, the whine, the flash -- any evidence of intelligent life outside Earth -- will never come. And the giant antenna arrays and banks of SETI supercomputers will note the same heartbreaking silence that has haunted such searches without exception for more than three decades, since Frank Drake conducted the first U.S.-based search in '61, and we will be left to fend for ourselves.It's a notion that runs contrary to the historical current of human thought. But, as the English biologist J.B.S. Haldane famously said: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose."


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