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How the NASA researchers who inspired the film Contact outfoxed Congress and continued the search for intelligent aliens

Wednesday, Apr 1 1998
Keeping Congress Out of Contact
During the summer of 1996, a group of Hollywood producers and actors spent a week mingling with scientists at the SETI Institute, a South Bay 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 Science
During 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.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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