"NASA has spent millions of dollars, has been listening for a whole year, and still hasn't heard anything. No little green men have come up to us and said 'take me to your leader.' " With that logic, Nevada senator Richard Bryan introduced on September 22, 1993 the legislation which terminated NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey just one year into its ten-year run. And it's true, of the dozens of SETI projects undertaken over the past 35 years, not one has produced a single, verified signal of intelligent extra- terrestrial origin. Does that mean that we're wasting our time? Hardly.
Why has SETI not yet succeeded? The fact is, we should not yet have achieved positive results. Consider that the Milky Way galaxy contains roughly 200 billion stars. Perhaps ten percent of these have lasted long enough to produce stable planetary systems. Frank Drake, father of the famous Drake Equation, now estimates that there are about 10,000 intelligent, communicative civilizations in our galaxy alone. But that makes every good candidate star we survey about a 20 million to one long-shot. The sum of all SETI programs to date has resulted in our surveying a few hundred stars, over a limited frequency range, for limited periods of time. Not only have we not yet scratched the surface, we haven't even found the itch.
SETI is not the sort of science which produces immediate results. But Congress appears not to realize that, and maybe it's just as well. I mourned the loss of NASA's SETI budget as much as anybody, but look at how far we've come since! The SETI Institute has given new life to the late NASA targeted search, under the Project Phoenix banner. Now The SETI League is preparing to resurrect the all sky survey component of NASA SETI, at admittedly much reduced sensitivity, but with unparalleled sky coverage. Privatization of SETI can work!
It has been suggested that any project in which Government (ours or anybody else's) involves itself will end up costing twice as much, taking twice as long, and working half as well. By privatizing SETI, we have a golden opportunity to do the search the way it should be done, not the way our supposed leaders deem politically appropriate and expedient.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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