John Billingham: Scientist who searched for extra-terrestrial intelligence


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The Independent Online

John Billingham, an Englishman with an unconventional academic background, was a senior Nasa official who helped design astronaut suits and other spaceflight technology and was a catalyst in the search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life.

In the 1970s, in the face of opposition and ridicule, Billingham helped persuade the US government to use radio and optical telescopes to scour the universe for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. He transformed the Seti Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) from an occasional experiment into a systematic programme; also responsible for work on the origin and evolution of life in the universe, he was described at Nasa as "the Father of Seti".

Although Nasa's formal search did not begin until 1992, Billingham had spent two decades planning, networking and manoeuvring Nasa into the search. He announced, "We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago. We accept the challenge of searching for a new world." But within a year Congress pulled the plug on a "waste of taxpayers' money" in the words of one critic, "a great Martian chase".

Born in Worcester in 1930, Billingham excelled at the Royal Grammar School, where he was a scholar. He progressed to University College, Oxford where, while reading physiology, he played rugby and continued his interest in photography, which became a lifelong passion.

Graduating, he moved to Guy's Hospital. While there he continued his hobby of photography and was elected an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in 1953. He also developed his first interest in space exploration, attending meetings of the British Interplanetary Society. In 1954 he returned to Oxford for his final medical exams. He met his wife, Margaret while the pair were working at Hampstead General Hospital in north London.

The same year, Billingham joined the RAF as a medical officer, rising to the rank of squadron leader, with a special interest in survival in the demanding and hostile environment of near-space. He was invited to join Nasa at the Space Centre in Houston, and moved to the US in 1963. He became Chief of the Environmental Physiology department in the Crew Systems Division, working on the medical and physiological aspects of space flight during the Mercury and Gemini programmes, and on the planning for Apollo. He helped introduce the thermal cooling suit for astronauts to wear during the intense heat of extra-vehicular activity and during their lunar surface explorations.

Two years later Billingham moved to Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California, rising to deputy chief of the Biotechnology Division, examining problems of space medicine, physiology and biotechnology. He was drawn to SETI by Carl Sagan's and Iosif Shklovsky's 1966 book Intelligent Life in the Universe. Sagan believed that due to the vastness of the universe it was unlikely that the Earth was the only planet with intelligent life; through him Billingham came to the discipline of astrobiology, then called exobiology – the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

In 1971, Billingham and Bernard Oliver, head of research at Hewlett-Packard, organised a summer symposium where a programme was devised for a system – Cyclops – to detect extra-terrestrial technology using an array of giant radio telescopes. The assumption was that other intelligent species, further along the evolutionary trail, would already have run such experiments, the results of which could be picked up on Earth. Results were published a year later as Project Cyclops and became the bible of SETI research. Although the system was never built, some of its concepts influenced subsequent SETI programmes.

Billingham retired from SETI in 1995. It was during this period of rapid technical development and increased awareness of SETI by academia and the public that the SETI Institute was founded. He worked hard in the ensuing years as a fundraiser and publicist for the Institute, helping secure financing from universities and hi-tech billionaires. One donation was of $25m for the Allen Telescopic Array, named after Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder.

Although the US government no longer pays SETI scientists, federal grants have helped pay for equipment. The government is also assisting in the expanding field of astrobiology, established by Billingham, which includes searching at the microbial level.

As chairman of the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Committee, Billingham broadened SETI conferences to include non-scientific and non-technical issues, such as the public's reaction to a SETI first detection. He also helped formulate procedures to guide the research community in the event of a detected signal, Social Implications of the Detection of an Extra-terrestrial Civilisation (1994). "A lot of people think this is silly, but we need to give a lot of thought to a reply," he said. "It is not a question just for scientists and engineers. Already we agree on one rule: Don't reply unless you have undertaken extensive international consultation."

Billingham published 80 papers and reviews on aviation and space science, medicine and engineering, and lectured on Life in Space at Stanford University. He was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, the Undersea Medical Society, the Nasa Society of Flight Surgeons, the American Astronautical Society and the International Astronomical Union.

Martin Childs

John Billingham, scientist: born Worcester 18 March 1930; married 1956 Margaret Macpherson (died 1992; two sons; died Grass Valley, California 4 August 2013.