In an isolated patch of arid wasteland, fenced off from the
rest of the world, a series of giant radio dishes overlook the
jumbled rocky expanse. The heat shimmers in the clear air among
the rounded tan rock piles and the dry scrub brush between them
seems to barely persevere. On Columbus Day 1992 buses filled with
space enthusiasts converged on the Goldstone facilities of the
Deep Space Network to celebrate the start of the biggest SETI
related effort up to that time. Practically all the luminaries
in the subject were present or involved in this radio survey of
the sky, piggybacked with a slightly more mundane program to construct
detailed radio maps of the heavens. Space Journalists made up
most of the guests. A few other space artists were present, including
Jon Lomberg and Garret Moore. Musician and Astrophysicist Dr.
Fiorella Terenzi enthusiastically spoke of her plans to incorporate
audio interpretations of the data received in SETI searches into
her future musical compositions. Everyone was eventually seated
under shade structures covering all except for the poor speakers,
who sweated it out in the sun atop the small stage with only a
glass of water for relief. The ceremonies began with a high school
band valiantly attempting to play the 'Star Spangled Banner',
with practically everyone standing and performing the traditional
national gesture of placing the right hand over the heart.
Those standing on the platform initially included Dr. Ed Stone, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Gary Coulter from NASA Headquarters, Samuel Gulkis from JPL, Dr. Mike Klein, director of the actual mapping survey, and Carl Sagan. Sagan's own lifelong efforts to promote searching for extraterrestrial life seemed to be coming to an admirable fruition, a progression of similar efforts colleagues had mounted over the decades.
All sat with the Sun at their backs, undoubtedly being grateful for even the slightest breeze. Edward Stone spoke first, welcoming everyone to the Goldstone complex of NASA's Deep Space Network. Stone spoke of the historical background of Columbus day and the use of the nearby radio telescopes to search for intelligent signals, and briefly outlined the history of such efforts. He seemed to convey an air of academic confidence. Sam Gulkis then came to the podium and spoke of the coordination of efforts at Goldstone and in Aricebo in Puerto Rico connected with this inauguration of the Survey. A telephone call was supposed to come in from Dr. Dave Brocker at Aricebo but it was delayed, leaving Mr. Gulkis trying to kill time while occasional signs of a struggle to make the telephone connection rang from the loudspeakers. He described what the dish was about to do and joked that "We're trying to do some interstellar communication and at the same time we're trying to establish, speak with a small island in the Caribbean...".
Muted sympathetic laughter came from the audience.
A voice on the phone was thought to be the anticipated call, but the faint speaker was not who was being anticipated, and lingering silence then was broken occasionally by Sam saying "Hello?. Finally they reached someone else, who apparently had no idea about the proceedings. With resigned humor Gulkis then handed the stage over to Dr. Klein, who also joked about the irony of the communications problems and mentioned that a Congressman failed to show up so he had some time to kill. He then began an animated description of the actions the great dish nearby was going to perform and the procedure of using it to scan the heavens. Sam then indicated the phone connection was made, and with a round of applause Dr. Klien announced "We now have Aricebo!"
The faint tinny voice from Aricebo then said "Okay, Before I command the initiation of the search, I would like to" ... piercing feedback then drowned out his words, and a hasty discussion followed on how to proceed. Smiles were exchanged among the seated speakers, and at times Carl Sagan seemed to be valiantly suppressing an impulse to burst out laughing. The distant Mr. Brocker started over, but was again rendered inaudible by piercing feedback seconds after he started speaking. Dr. Klien finally rose to the microphone and improvised "well, I wasn't supposed to speak today, but I get to come back"...sympathetic applause came from the audience "And now without further delay," he then chuckled, "It is my pleasure to present, as project manager, to instruct Dr. Jill Tarter, the project scientists, and Mary Webster, at the targeted search team there at Aricebo, Puerto Rico, and Dr. Sam Gulkis, sky survey scientist, and Mike Klein and the sky survey team at the California desert at Goldstone to commence observations. Observations which will lead to a better understanding of the Universe, and of ourselves. Make It So. "
A rousing applause then rose from everyone, then as it waned Sam Gulkis continued speaking, "Those of you that can see from under the tent will notice that the telescope has moved from its parked position and is apparently on its way into the ready position...shortly it will have begun the first observations...starting in approximately 3 minutes...like a fisherman, we will have cast our net into the cosmic waters, now we must all wait patiently, to see what will be in the net when it is retrieved. While we can all speculate on the probabilities that a radio signal from a distant civilization will be detected no guesswork, no matter how well informed, is as good as performing the experiment. Whatever the outcome of the experiment that we are starting today, we have stimulated the imagination and learned something about ourselves...I cannot help but think the net will be empty once we have finished.
Sam then made an introductory gesture and announced "
It is now, my pleasure to introduce Dr. Carl Sagan. It is not
necessary for me to tell you about his many scientific accomplishments,
his prowess as an educator, as a speaker, a writer, and a movie
maker, you all know that...today I would like to introduce him
as a very good friend to SETI, and the HMRS Survey as well. Since
the early sixties Dr. Sagan has stimulated scientific discussion
of SETI through his numerous scientific papers and books, his
public appearances, and his TV shows... Through the Planetary
Society he supported SETI experiments, both large and small, and
in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres...When funding for
this project was down, as it frequently was, Carl was always there
to help in any way he could. He has been a constant source of
inspiration to all of us that have worked on this project...Carl,
we all welcome your remarks at this NASA HRMS ceremony!
Loud and extended applause greeted Carl, who stood up seemingly relieved after the wait, shifted his hot dark clothing, and confidently strode to the podium with only small scraps of notes in his hands. Carl leaned toward the crowd in front of him, smiled and said in his distinctive tones: "Thank you Sam. I want to begin by just mentioning my opinion...that the difficulty in communicating with Puerto Rico does not bode ill with the (audience laughter) difficulty in communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence, the key fact is you saw the telescope move! (more laughter as Carl Gestured at the upturned dish behind him) and as far as formal remarks..." he relaxed even more and looked as if he was addressing a group of friends rather than making a formal presentation... "Who cares! " laughing and scattered clapping followed. It was indeed a group of joyous people sharing a curiosity about the existence of other civilizations and glad to be seeing something being done about it.
"The sun that's beating down on us, especially us up here on the platform seems very bright...and it is an astonishment, I remember it was to me, at a very young age when I first heard about it...that the Sun is just a star. That the other stars were suns but so far removed from us...that they appear just as points of light. And in the night sky even with excellent eyesight you can only see a few thousand of those stars, mainly the nearest ones and the brightest ones. But the Milky Way galaxy contains about four hundred billion stars more or less like the sun and there is increasing evidence that planets are a common if not invariable accompaniment of these stars. And so it's such a natural thought if there's all those other...immense number of planetary systems out there, if ours has life and intelligence on at least one world, then should there not be an enormous number of other populated planets? And should not some of them have reached a level of technological advance equal to ours or still more advanced? It's the most natural thought in the world and what we have learned lately, about the abundance of forming planetary systems...about the abundance of organic molecules, the building blocks of life in the cold dark near vacuum between the stars...and about the enormous age of many of these star systems, some of them many billions of years older than we are...altogether lends credence to the idea that life and intelligence may be abundant. But that is not proof, that is merely a plausibility argument, that merely enough encourages to justify making a search like this go...the only way we can be sure is to find a signal. The most likely case, if we do receive a signal, is that it's from beings much more advanced than we.
Why? Because if they're even a little more backward than us they can't communicate at all...we've just ourselves barely reached the threshold of being able to perform this kind of communication, just in the last few decades. So the most likely circumstance is signals from beings very different from us, much more advanced than we are, beings from whom we might have a great deal to learn. At the same time because they might be much more advanced, the chances of being at exactly our level of technological advance is very small and it's safe, if they're behind us, we don't hear from them at all. The chances are that such a signal would be rich in information. We would have...not just information about them to learn, but information about ourselves. There have been before this search a very few other attempts occasionally done just incidentally, with spare time, on existing telescopes, a few more dedicated searches on smaller telescopes, but never has there been anything on the scale of this NASA program. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is driven by technology, and just as you can buy better and better cheaper and cheaper hand calculators as time goes on you can also buy, assemble, and devise better and better, cheaper and cheaper means of detecting possible signals of other civilizations.
You want to be able to detect very faint signals, to be able to distinguish them from the background radiation of the radar systems on the Earth, television stations and diathermy machines, and starters on automobiles and all the other sets of radio noise that our civilization provides. You want to be able to go through many frequencies like turning the dial on your AM radio, but an enormous dial much longer than the one on your radio set. You want to be able to cover the entire sky, and there are many other things you can do with radio waves that you want to cover those alternatives as well. This system makes a major step in that direction. I've personally been involved with another system some hundreds of times less capable than this called META that the Planetary society has been sponsoring for six to seven years. Paul Horowitz, the resident genius responsible for that system and I have recently analyzed the data and submitted it in a scientific paper for publication and we find a residuum...of a very few signals from the sky...which do not seem to be radio interference...which are very narrow band, which are strong, and which seem to lie close to the plane of the Millky Way Galaxy. These are tantalizing...but they cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called compelling evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence because they do not repeat. We have given the coordinates of these sources to the High Resolution Microwave Survey scientists and we are with great anticipation looking forward to what happens when those coordinates are looked at with this much superior system."
He then briefly touched on the historical background of that day. He mentioned Columbus, whose image had recently been tarnished as the idealized legend gave way to more detailed looks at his actual conduct, and he briefly dwelled on the tragic aspects of his voyage, which no mainstream politician would be likely to express.
"This inauguration is occurring on the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus arriving in this part of the world, hardly the discovery of America because there were hundreds of thousands of people here already, and as you know there is substantial controversy about the wisdom of celebrating this event. There's no question that in the annals of exploration, the course of bringing together the planet this is, Culumbus's voyage was of historical significance...on the other hand, there are many other aspects of that voyage which we could properly have reasons to regret. But I want to stress that this project, beginning today, has all the positive and none of the negative aspects of that historic journey. We are not seeking slaves as Columbus and his funding agency was, we are not out to forcibly convert the heathen, we are not out to steal spices and gold, we are seeking knowledge only, exploration and discovery. And that being the case, it is really remarkable that a government is willing to fund, although sometimes with second thoughts, (audience laughter) so far seeing a project devoted so purely to exploration and discovery, and I think it speaks extremely well of our civilization and our nation, it is a sign of a hopeful and confident society.
If this search succeeds, if some day whistling into that big dish or the one in Aricebo or any of the other radio telescopes that are going to be used in the Southern as well as the Northern hemisphere, if one day there comes a signal, something absolutely unambiguously artificial...what would be the consequences? There are many we can debate, there has never been a case of this sort before, but one thing is...that it will tell us that it is possible to pass through the stage of technological adolescence that we are in without destroying ourselves. That's very important information. If there is data, if there is something like the Encyclopedia Galactica that comes to us, then of course every field of human knowledge and our understanding of ourselves will be revolutionized in an unprecedented way and it would surely comprise the greatest discovery in the history of science.
And if we fail, if after a decade or more of comprehensive careful meticulous search we find nothing, what then? Then we have calibrated something of the rarity and preciousness of intelligence, of our kind of civilization. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal as well. This is one of the few cases where whether you find what you're looking for or you don't, you have gained something worthwhile, and in that and many other senses I think this a extremely worthwhile investment, and a very positive hopeful and optimistic sign about our nation and our civilization.
Carl stood for a short time, smiling and scanning the crowd of friendly faces and cameras, then he left the stage with the others and mingled with the crowd. The great dish nearby slowly moved with quiet precision as it scanned the skies beyond the blue daylight. Artists and writers circulated among reporters and authors, almost like the Voyager days when the 'Gathering Of The Tribes' in the space field would take place during the planetary encounters. A couple hours later we again boarded our buses, passed through guarded gates, and left the great dishes overlooking the wastelands to slowly scan the invisible heavens.