Note: This is, quite sadly, my final Time Machine article! I am departing from CAFE to work on a history book (!), and leave with the utmost love and respect for this amazing team. Thank you, readers, for all of your brilliant feedback, questions, and support over the last four years! And for a final topic, what better than the search for life beyond earth?
On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Imagining Alien Contact,” Garrett Graff discussed his book UFO and the long American search for extraterrestrial life. Graff’s tome details a plethora of awkward attempts by American governmental agencies, Congress, and academics to come together to search for extraterrestrial life – from then-Representative Gerald Ford’s 1960s UFO hearings, to the contentious Air Force UFO research program Project Blue Book, to the Clinton administration’s championing of a mysterious space rock from Mars. In 1978, a surprisingly philosophical congressional hearing also revealed the wonder, controversy, and confusion that has so often accompanied the national quest to find life beyond earth.
The problem began, as it so often does, with the federal budget. In 1978, NASA asked Congress for $2 million for seven successive years (a very small total appropriation of $14 million) to conduct a study of radio frequencies for possible extraterrestrial transmissions.
This concept – that testing frequencies could potentially track down a “beacon” set up by an alien life force – first received widespread attention in 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma by pointing a radio receiver at two stars similar to the sun that theoretically could have accompanying planets. By 1974, radio SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) had picked up steam; that year, Drake, Carl Sagan, and other famed scientists sent out an interstellar radio message from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
When NASA attempted to get in the mix, however, backlash quickly ensued. In UFO, Graff details the central role of Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire in quashing the space agency’s attempts to begin investigating UFOs and extraterrestrials. In February 1978, Proxmire even gave one of his “Golden Fleece Awards,” a monthly “honor” for the most wasteful or random government expenditure, to NASA’s plan, arguing that the proposal was largely fueled by popular culture and had little scientific merit:
This tells me that while the American public is fascinated by “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” NASA is trying to ride the enthusiasm into a multi-million dollar, long-range program of questionable searches for intelligence beyond our solar system.
Proxmire also argued that the dire financial situation in the nation made any federal SETI funds unnecessarily reckless:
At a time when the country is faced with a $61 billion budget deficit the attempt to detect radio waves from solar systems should be postponed until right after the federal budget is balanced and income and social security taxes are reduced to zero.
Graff does not get into the ultimate fate of the $14 million for the NASA radio frequency study, however, so I decided to take a closer look. As it turns out, Proxmire soon managed to kill the appropriation, teaming up with Democratic Massachusetts Representative Edward Boland to excise the plan from NASA’s budget.
The death of the proposal, however, led to a very interesting set of congressional hearings.
Florida Representative Don Fuqua was disappointed by Proxmire’s move. Fuqua, the Chair of the House Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, had been a major liaison between NASA and Congress from his assumption of office in 1963. He had attended every Apollo launch (except for Apollo 12!) and was fascinated by the possibilities of space exploration.
In 1975, Fuqua had commissioned a report by the Library of Congress Science Policy Research Division entitled “Possibility of Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe.” The report examined with optimism several SETI efforts, and included a rousing letter of transmittal and statement of purpose from Fuqua:
As we learn more and more about ourselves and the universe we live in, the more likely it appears that intelligence beyond the bounds of our planets may exist. If we are to react rationally to such possibilities we must study and understand the knowledge which currently exists in this field. This document is a contribution to that understanding.
When Proxmire killed the radio frequency project, Fuqua decided to hold two days of hearings with leaders in SETI scholarship and research to push back against the frugal Senator’s skepticism. The event represented the first SETI hearings in Congressional history.
The hearings began on September 19th, 1978 and were dubbed “Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research.” The full transcript is available on Google Books.
A bit of a contextual aside: The hearings did not generate all that much publicity, in part because they occurred concurrently with a mammoth geopolitical development. Two days before the first hearing, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, and they spent much of the first day of the SETI hearings briefing Congress and saying farewell to President Carter before they left Washington. Additionally, the Subcommittee was fearful that advance publicity might have led to “fringe types” attending or making noise about the hearings; thus, the Middle East distraction was probably not viewed as too much of an issue.
The lead witness was Richard Berendzen, an astronomer who was a teaching assistant to Carl Sagan at Harvard and who was serving as the Provost of American University (he would become the school’s president in 1980, only to resign a decade later amid a truly bizarre and sad sexual phone call scandal).
Berendzen offered a poetic, conceptual, and extremely broad explanation of physics and astronomy – a veritable meditation on the possibility of life beyond what he called “ghetto earth.” The hearing transcript is punctuated with a series of Berendzen’s submitted photographic prompts, including a close-up of Adam’s and God’s hands meeting in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man” in the Sistine Chapel and portraits of Einstein at various points of maturity.
The astronomer argued that the previous two decades – from Drake’s initial Ozma experiment onwards – had convinced many mainstream scientists that SETI was anything but conspiratorial or fantastical:
Accumulating evidence during the last two decades has convinced many scientists worldwide that extraterrestrial life probably does exist, possibly in enormous abundance. It must be noted, however, that incontrovertible proof has yet to be found: To date, the evidence is strictly circumstantial, but it is highly suggestive and possibly compelling. Today, the serious scientific search for extraterrestrial life commands the attention and respect of many of our most prominent, careful, and judicious scientists. SETI – in its sophisticated, modern form – is solid and sober, not tawdry or sensational.
He also argued that any vision of direct contact with aliens was still far-fetched; unless they endeavored to visit us, the hurdles to deep space exploration (the speed of light, et cetera) remained largely prohibitive:
Within the solar system we can search directly for non-intelligent lower life forms like ferns or bacteria. But outside our parochial environment, the hypothetical creatures must be communicative if we are to find them. The most dramatic way to communicate would be through direct contact; however, even using wild extrapolations of contemporary technology, deep space voyages seem highly problematic.
Berendzen said that utilizing waves was thus the most realistic way of potentially communicating with extraterrestrial forces:
Nevertheless, interstellar communication could be achieved immediately by using the fastest, most efficient mode known – the electromagnetic spectrum.
And he suggested that NASA, if granted their appropriation, would be joining a long list of astronomers and adventurers who had utilized electromagnetism (in their cases largely just light cues and landmarks) in efforts to attract otherworldly beings:
The mathematician Gauss, for instance, suggested planting a pine forest in Siberia in the shape of a Pythagorean triangle, as a detectable sign of terrestrial intelligence. And an astronomer proposed signaling by burning kerosene in a 20 mile-wide ditch to be dug in the Sahara desert.
Berendzen, in a moment of humility, argued that astronomers in 1978 were just as out there as their predecessors, but that the quest was noble and worth a real try:
Are we equally naive today? Undoubtedly! That unprofound observation, however, should not prevent action; if it were to do so, we would ensure the blunting of mankind’s ingenuity.
Berendzen zeroed in on the radio frequency concept, arguing that the simplicity and surprisingly widespread scientific acceptance of the hypothesis of potential communication via waves signaled a sea change in mainstream opinion toward SETI.
Contemporary science is already able to identify candidate stars and likely wavelengths, and contemporary equipment could detect the signals if they were transmitted with devices no more powerful than our own. These are but a few of the reasons why many serious scientists treat the search with new respect: Science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact.
Berendzen also descended into a bit of a rabbit hole, imagining for a good portion of his testimony the potential fallout if humans indeed confronted the extraterrestrial other:
Obviously mankind would have to proceed carefully, guarding against impetuosity or gullibility. And there is the serious possibility of culture shock. Just the realization that we truly are not alone might be traumatic, but would it threaten our egos or shatter our institutions? Even the converse could happen: At last the commonality of all Earthlings might become more apparent. But suppose the messages we received were both benign and voluminous, enabling us to leap centuries in knowledge. Would that celestial umbilical cord rob us of our own ingenuity, or would it inspire us to new heights?
And – if that wasn’t erudite enough – he offered a meditation on why the potentially long timescale for NASA’s thwarted project (which, one can assume, contributed to Proxmire’s distaste) in fact represented a historical challenge for humanity:
The sternest arbiter of all is not the President, the Congress, or even the People; it is Time. Before that unforgiving master, how will our judgments stand? As we sit in the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, will we give Columbus his ships? Are we willing to look through Galileo’s telescope? Dare we join Darwin on the Beagle? How long will we tarry at Newton’s seashore, while the ocean of truth lies undiscovered?
After Berendzen’s dramatic call to arms, Philip Morrison, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who had worked intimately on the Manhattan Project and had become a leading voice for world peace and a SETI advocate, argued that the radio frequency search was a way to look more efficiently for a needle in the vast haystack of space:
We know life is not everywhere. But yet it may be in very many places. We have looked in the haystack very little. The pioneer workers, a few radio astronomers, were financing themselves under the table, using spare time and existing equipment, working on weekends, and so on. They have been people that walk by the great haystack and pick up a handful of straw. They looked for a needle but they didn’t find one. This is not exactly a fair and full search.
Morrison also argued that SETI scientists and supportive politicians needed to reframe the search to be a broader philosophical program, rather than a niche and far-fetched quest:
In view of the fact that Congress chose not to appropriate funds in fiscal year 1979 to start SETI, this may be a time to think more carefully about the role of SETI as but one aspect of the larger question of the origin of life…In so doing, I believe that we must now work to describe better our integral program of fundamental science that is providing us with a greater understanding of the origin of life and the potential of the rest of the universe for bearing life. Within that context, the radio SETI search can be seen in perspective and as one relatively low cost, albeit very important, element.
During the questioning of the witnesses, Fuqua referenced the Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” and challenged the scientists to make sense of the opposition:
Well, this program was offered a famous award that is given away frequently by a member of the other body and he indicated that it was a luxury that the country could ill-afford. There was not one scintilla of evidence that life existed and that there were more higher priorities available.
Morrison appealed to democracy, arguing that the vast majority of Americans both expected and respected SETI research and believed that it was much further along than it actually was – an interesting interpolation of Proxmire’s dismissals of the project as being too fueled by blockbuster movies:
I think if you asked 100 persons in the country, at random 85 will think it’s already going on and is the purpose of much astronomical work. Of course that view is quite wrong. It is strange that it would be regarded as not worthwhile.
Some legislators reacted particularly flamboyantly to the hearing. James F. Lloyd, a California Democrat and famed naval aviator, offered a metaphysical soliloquy on the nature of his own smallness in the vast sea of time and space – and the hopes that alien contact could free him from his mortal binds:
Who knows what the actual measurement of time is? Are we a function of the measurement of time and therefore are we an hour or a second or infinitely more? The answer is – I don’t know. We speculate. We just know of our own existence. We have a function, however crude it may be, as to a measurement of time. In that timespan, we sincerely hope that in the random thrashings about that we have, that maybe we will indeed make contact with somebody. Better yet, maybe they will make contact with us, whoever they may be.
And Lloyd argued that he – as a scientific novice – needed the experts to show him how he could better conceptualize his earthly place:
I don’t know what frequencies would be best. I don’t know the methodology of radio transmission or if it is the best way to go. I am back there with the guy that will light the kerosene, in the canal on the Sahara Desert. That is where I am. Or take a whole series of mirrors and collect the sun’s energy and shoot that out into space. It is in the same category as the guy with kerosene.
The second day of hearings was slightly less literary. But A.G.W. Cameron, a Harvard astrophysicist and the chairman of the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences, offered a painful hypothetical: That the “beacon” radio transmission quest could fail because – if aliens were anything like humans – extraterrestrials might not be willing to expend the effort to set up a frequency:
The trouble with the beacon theory is that I am not sure that we, as a race, when we are older, would expend the effort to establish a beacon of our own. That is why I find the idea that there may be beacons interesting, but I’m not persuaded that they have to be there. It requires a degree of altruism that I’m not sure we have.
The hearings received some attention in the succeeding weeks. One Washington Post editorial, from September 30th, 1978, argued that the possibility of extraterrestrial communication was exhilarating – and might be able to help America and the wider world keep pushing past the struggles of the late 1970s malaise:
The most interesting element in all this is that, if we ever should receive a comprehensible message, it will probably have been intentionally sent — meaning that whoever is up there has something to tell us. Perhaps to push ahead.
Eventually, due in part to the influence of Carl Sagan, Proxmire and his fellow SETI naysayers began to see the light and the NASA radio frequency project got some congressional funding. Almost five decades later, however, the broader SETI search is clearly far from over – and the possible paradigmatic shifts of alien contact remain thrilling to millions.
In addition to Graff’s UFO, check out Lawrence Squeri’s 2016 Waiting for Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history: