National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA History Program Office

SETI: The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence

Since the beginning of civilization, people have wondered if we are alone in the universe or whether there is intelligent life somewhere else. In the late twentieth century, scientists converged upon the basic idea of scanning the sky and "listening" for non-random patterns of electromagnetic emissions such as radio or television waves in order to detect another possible civilization somewhere else in the universe. In late 1959 and early 1960, the modern SETI era began when Frank Drake conducted the first such SETI search at approximately the same time that Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a key journal article suggesting this approach.

NASA joined in SETI efforts at a low-level in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of these SETI-related efforts included Project Orion, the Microwave Observing Project, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and Toward Other Planetary Systems. On Columbus Day in 1992, NASA initiated a formal, more intensive, SETI program. Less than a year later, however, Congress canceled the program.

For more background on SETI history and the cancellation of NASA's SETI program, you may want to read an article from the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Part of the cancelled program was picked up by the private, non-profit SETI Institute, and a smaller part by the non-profit, grassroots SETI League. NASA is still very much interested in astrobiology and the question of whether or not we are alone has been adopted by the NASA Origins program. For a comprehensive look at current SETI issues, Sky & Telescope magazine's SETI Section contains regularly updated articles and resources.

We also have several related full-length books now on-line. Archaeolology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communications, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, (NASA SP-2013-4413) contains several relevant chapters. You may want to view the full text and images of The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (NASA SP-419, 1977), which was edited by Philip Morrison, John Billingham, and John Wolfe. The Web version of Project Orion: A Design Study of a System for Detecting Extrasolar Planets (NASA SP-436, 1980) is now available on-line. A fourth SETI-related volume that is now on-line is Life in the Universe (NASA CP-2156, 1981). Special thanks to Chris Gamble for preparing these volumes for the Web.

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Updated September 29, 2014
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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