Congress Is Quietly Nudging NASA to Look for Aliens

In October 1992, astronomers kicked off an ambitious project years in the making. Two radio telescopes, one in Puerto Rico and the other in California, started scouring the night sky for potential signals from alien civilizations somewhere deep in the cosmos.

“We begin the search,” declared Jill Tarter, the project scientist, as the telescopes started listening around glimmering stars many light-years from Earth.

A year later, the search was suddenly over. A senator from Nevada wiped out all funding for any efforts in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, in NASA’s budget, including this new project.

“The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end,” declared Senator Richard Bryan, after Congress approved a NASA funding bill with zero mention of SETI. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”

The search for extraterrestrial life, in general, would continue, of course, carried out by academic institutions around the world, by people like Tarter, one of the field’s best-known SETI researchers (and the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the protagonist in Contact, Carl Sagan’s 1985 classic science-fiction novel). But they wouldn’t get any help from the feds.

“[Bryan] made it clear to the administration that if they came back with SETI in their budget again, it wouldn’t be good for the NASA budget,” Tarter says now. “So we instantly became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t say at headquarters anymore, and that has stuck for quite a while.”

That could soon change. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives recently proposed legislation for NASA’s future that including some intriguing language. The space agency, the bill recommends, should spend $10 million on the “search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions” in the next two fiscal years.

The House bill—should it survive a vote in the House and passage in the Senate—can only make recommendations for how agencies should use federal funding. But for SETI researchers like Tarter, the fact that it even exists is thrilling. It’s the first time congressional lawmakers have proposed using federal cash to fund SETI in 25 years.

Since SETI research emerged in the United States in the 1960s, astronomers have targeted one particular signature of technology: communication signals, especially those that span a …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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