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Remembering John Billingham

Michael Michaud is no stranger to these pages, with a number of prior contributions and a reputation that precedes him in the field of SETI and interstellar research at large. Among his accomplishments are a lengthy career in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he served as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo, and Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. His involvement with SETI is lengthy and includes chairing working groups at the International Academy of Astronautics and numerous articles and papers. His book Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Springer, 2007) is an indispensable contribution to the growing body of SETI literature. Today Michael reflects on the life of his friend and colleague John Billingham, who died on August 4 at the age of 83.

by Michael Michaud


One of the true pioneers of SETI has left us. John Billingham played a major role in legitimizing the once far-out idea of searching for and communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence through the technologies of radio astronomy.

Born in England, John won degrees in physiology at Oxford, as well as the equivalent of an American M.D. from Guy’s Hospital in London. He served seven years as a medical officer with the Royal Air Force, specializing in aviation medicine and physiology. A pilot, his interests then lay in flight and manned spaceflight.

Billingham came to the United States in 1963, joining NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center. As head of the environmental physiology office, he worked on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and was involved in the design of spacesuits for astronauts. In 1966 he moved to the NASA Ames research center in California, rising to chief of the biotechnology division, later chief of the extraterrestrial research division, and then chief of the life sciences division.

John was first drawn to SETI by the 1966 Shklovskii/Sagan book Intelligent Life in the Universe. He worked quietly and effectively to establish SETI as a legitimate NASA activity. Patient, polite, but determined, he gave us a model of how to move big ideas to actual programs without bluster. He eventually became Acting Chief of the office for NASA’s short-lived SETI program, cancelled in 1993.

In 1971, Billingham and Bernard Oliver organized a summer study of a system for detecting extraterrestrial technology through radio astronomy. The result was published a year later as Project Cyclops. While that system never was built, some of its concepts strongly influenced subsequent SETI programs.

John and I began exchanging correspondence in 1976, beginning a long collaboration on the social and policy aspects of SETI. As the chairman of the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Committee, he broadened SETI sessions at the annual International Astronautical Congress to include non-scientific and non-technical issues such as how we should organize ourselves for contact and what procedures we should follow after a detection.

As early as 1981, John was raising the questions of whether we should reply, what we should say, and who decides. Discussions at the 1987 Congress led to the drafting of the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (better known as the First SETI Protocol), published in 1989. John was instrumental in organizing workshops on the cultural and social aspects of contact, leading to the publication of Social Implications of the Detection of an Extraterrestrial Civilization in 1994.


Image: SETI investigator John Billingham, whose recent death deprives the field of one of its most supple minds. Credit: SETI League.

After retiring from NASA, Billingham became Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute. He was invited to join the Board of that organization, where his title was Trustee Emeritus.

During the 1990s, Billingham and a few of his allies developed a White Paper on communication with ETI, including principles for a second protocol on transmissions from Earth. This document was presented to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 2000. Three years later, the new chairman of the Academy’s SETI Study Group began an effort to improve the first SETI Protocol and to formalize the second. Differences over how to address transmissions from Earth intended to attract the attention of other technological civilizations proved unbridgeable. John and I resigned from the group in 2007.

The Active SETI issue remains unresolved. Billingham had commented long before that SETI tugs at beliefs and provokes polarization.

For a time, the California license plate on John’s car read SIR SETI, a token of appreciation from his colleagues. He still is SIR SETI to me.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gregory Benford August 8, 2013, 12:12

    Well written!
    A shock to hear days ago that he was gone. I so enjoyed visiting his elegant home in Grass Valley. A very sharp, far-reaching intellect, and a fine man.

  • ljk August 8, 2013, 12:15

    I had the honor of meeting him at a SETI conference in Harvard in 2000. Very gracious and kind man.

    Here is an article on Dr. Billingham from Astrobiology Magazine including photographs:


  • James Benford August 8, 2013, 13:58

    John Billingham was a true gentleman. Due to his steady temperament, he came to lead the SETI community as it formed. He was always courteous, with an ability to disagree without being disagreeable. He seemed the grownup in the room, deeply thoughtful, having a certain gravitas. Personally, he was generous to a fault, as all who have visited his marvelous estate in the Sierra foothills can testify.

  • David A. Czuba August 8, 2013, 19:27

    Coincidentally, Last Friday I purchased a used copy of the 1979 NASA publication on SETI co-authored by Billingham, Philip Morrison, and John Wolfe. It had been attracting my attention on the shelf for at least a year before i realized I could have it for half off with the educator trade value. It will be interesting to compare that work with Edward Ashpole’s new release “Signatures of Life: Science Searches the Universe”, published by Prometheus Books in Amherst, NY.

  • George Van Valkenburg August 11, 2013, 22:28

    I had the pleasure of producing a brief documentary film with John around 1965, titled, as I recall, Exobiology at Ames. I may still have a print around. If so, I will post it on YouTube, in honour of this great, forward thinker.
    Aeternum vale. g

  • ljk August 12, 2013, 12:38

    John Billingham, Seeker of Extraterrestrials, Dies at 83


    Published: August 10, 2013

    Dr. John Billingham, who as a NASA official in the 1970s helped persuade the federal government to use radio telescopes to scour the universe for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, even as critics mocked the idea, died on Aug. 4 in Grass Valley, Calif. He was 83.

    His death was confirmed by his sons, Robert and Graham.

    Dr. Billingham, an Englishman who earned a medical degree at Oxford and helped design spacesuits for astronauts in the 1960s, never found the evidence he was looking for. But he did help establish the validity of the quest.

    “We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago,” Dr. Billingham said on Oct. 12, 1992, when after two decades of planning and maneuvering NASA formally began its search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known by the acronym SETI. “We accept the challenge of searching for a new world.”

    The effort, which Dr. Billingham led as chief of the life sciences division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, involved using huge radio telescopes to search for radio signals — either deliberate intergalactic flares or incidental noise — emitted by other technologically advanced civilizations that might be billions of years old and billions of light-years away.

    “The whole picture is that we are the newcomers on the block, that they’re out there, other civilizations that are much older than we are,” Frank Drake, a radio astronomer who in 1960 started seeking signals from beyond the solar system, said in an interview. “Anybody we find would probably be way ahead of us in longevity and probably in sophistication.”

    Yet a year after NASA began the project, SETI lost its federal financing amid Congressional assertions that it was a waste of taxpayer money — “a great Martian chase” in the words of one critic, Senator Richard H. Bryan, a Nevada Democrat.

    Dr. Billingham retired not long after, but neither he nor SETI was finished.

    Full article here:


  • Domenic Menge August 17, 2013, 23:28

    Rest in Peace SIR SETI