Jill Tarter suspended above the radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Tarter was a key figure in the founding of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project. (Louie Psihoyos)
Berkeley scientist Jill Tarter was a key figure in launching the legendary program known as SETI. Her determination inspired Jodie Foster's character in the 1997 film, Contact. In the first biography of her, Tarter recalls that SETI was no easy sell in Congress, and almost didn't get off the ground.
On Columbus Day Eve, 1992, Jill Tarter paced the Arecibo Observatory control room, making sure every winding blue cable was in place, every signal pathway was sound, and every cryogenic dewar did its job. She looked out the panoramic window into the ancient sinkhole below. The giant radio dish—1,000 feet across—filled the space perfectly. Engineers had picked the telescope’s location by spreading out a topographic map of Puerto Rico and sliding a quarter around to see which valley could hold it. The quarter nestled precisely within a sinkhole 10 miles from the town of Arecibo. Three concrete pillars, which summer interns (and Tarter) occasionally climb to impress each other, rise from the edges of the basin, which the dish fills almost completely. Steel cables as thick as your forearm reach from the pillars toward the middle of the dish (although 500 feet above it). They hold aloft the radio-wave detectors and the electronics that make this huge contraption more than just a big bowl of chicken wire.
The Columbus Day Eve sun began to set, and the sky streaked the colors of an airbrushed ’80s T-shirt. Maybe somewhere else, on some other planet, some other sky was streaked the same colors. Maybe someone was there to watch. These someones wouldn’t know what the ’80s or T-shirts were, but they would know starsets.
Tarter turned from the window and prepared to test the equipment with Backus.
“Ready?” he asked.
They pointed the telescope toward Pioneer 10, testing just like always. It showed up, a slash on the screen, just like always. Then, they turned toward a few stars—more tests. The computers they had built talked back to them, delivering good and unexpected news: they had found an interesting signal, interesting enough to “send a shiver of excitement through everyone in the control room,” Backus told the New York Times. “Then it struck me,” Backus continued. “Maybe what we were seeing on the screen is exactly what we are looking for. Sometime in the next couple of weeks we might do it for real. Who knows?” The signal turned out to be from a physical, not a biological, source.
Tarter stayed in the control room until 3 a.m. When she walked back to her two-room hut, with its floral-upholstered couch and bamboo table, the chirping of the jungle frogs was deafening. But the natural noise was a welcome change, taking her mind for a moment off the nervous hum of electronics.
A few hours later Tarter awoke and got dressed for the press. It was the day Her Majesty’s Royal SETI began. She prepared to keep the Cyclops Report’s promise. Outside the control room, where coder Jane Jordan’s software prepared to search for alien signals, a crowd gathered, including Shana and her brand-new husband, who also took their honeymoon photos on the telescope’s catwalk during the same trip.
Billingham stepped before the crowd to give an opening speech. He had spent even longer than Tarter waiting for this moment. “This is the beginning of the next age of discovery,” he said. “We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day five hundred years ago. We accept the challenge of searching for a new world.”
The audience, including the scientists who had worked for more than a decade to make sure someone like Billingham could make a speech something like this, smiled taut smiles and looked out toward the radio dish.
“If you’re going to do this,” Barney Oliver had long ago told Tarter, setting a gold statue of Sisyphus and his boulder on her desk, “you’re going to need this. Because you’re going to roll an awful lot of rocks up an awful lot of hills, and they’re all going to come tumbling down. And you’re going to have to do it again. That’s just the price of trying to do something new.”
Tarter thought maybe the boulder had finally crested—today, Columbus Day, 1992. She pressed the buttons that told the telescope to start observing. “We begin the search,” she declared.
Simultaneously, Sam Gulkis did the same at the Goldstone telescope in California, starting the survey portion of the search. The Arecibo Radio Telescope pointed at the star GL615.1A, 63 light-years away in the constellation Hercules. GL615.1A is like our sun but smaller and cooler. God, this is a really amazing day for humans, Tarter thought. Here we are launching this exploration simply because we’re curious. That’s a big milestone for humanity. We’re doing this.
A New York Times reporter covering the event waxed philosophical, too, about the telescope itself: “There was speculation as to what future archeologists might surmise if they happened on the ruins of these stone pillars, aluminum panels and huge steel cables and girders. Here a society with scientist-priests communicated with their gods in the heavens? Some Columbuses sought the cosmic Indies, never found? Or this was the place where humans listened in the jungle stillness and for the first time heard that they are not alone in the universe?”
Senator Richard Bryan, perhaps via this very New York Times piece (newspapers were always causing trouble for SETI), caught wind of the celebration. He had wanted SETI gone, and here SETI was, starting up in earnest. At a hearing for fiscal year 1994, Bryan’s words sent a shiver through Tarter when she watched on C-SPAN: “Mr. Goldin,” Bryan said to Daniel Goldin, the head of NASA, “something in your budget doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“He was talking about SETI,” Tarter says.
Goldin says he was caught off-guard by the congressional opposition, in general, to SETI. As a new administrator, he knew the research program existed, but he didn’t know much about its specifics. He says he wished someone had warned him about what he was walking into. “I was so frustrated that I had only a layman’s understanding of the program,” he says, “and I’m a detail person, and I always do homework before I do anything, and especially before hearings.”
During that hearing, Tarter leaned toward the television, like it was a black box that could tell her future. Having knocked on as many White-House doors as she could, all she could do was wait for the final hearing, where people she didn’t know would decide whether her career lived or died. “It’s hard to elevate the consciousness of Congressmen from mundane to heavenly matters,” Barney Oliver once said in an interview with the Times.
In September 1993, Congress met to talk about science and technology projects. To build solid rocket motors or to not build solid rocket motors? To build the superconducting supercollider (yes, a real thing) or to not build the superconducting supercollider? They had been going at it for days, slashing this and cutting that. Tarter watched C-SPAN for hours, thinking how much more boring it must be in that room. She switched off the television and went to pack her suitcase. She was scheduled to give a talk in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the Wernher Von Braun Lecture Series at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The whole night—meant for the public—was about exploration and the human spirit. Tarter would speak about SETI, of course, and folk musician John Denver would serenade the audience with world-uniting songs.
She stood backstage as Denver performed “White Horses,” swaying and watching the crowd do the same. They were all there together, in this moment in the dark in Huntsville, thinking about the long future, the big space, and their place in it all. It was kind of beautiful. But at the same time, Congress sat behind long desks discussing whether to interrupt that line of questioning.
“It was all overwhelming,” she says in 2015, looking toward the wall of her Berkeley home, where the plaque commemorating the Von Braun lecture hangs. “I was overwhelmed by the star power on the stage and the DC shenanigans threatening to terminate my world.”
Just before she was to succeed Denver on the stage, a staffer whispered in her ear: Senator Bryan had put in an eleventh-hour proposal to cancel the SETI program. Congress would vote in the morning. She calls Denver’s performance a Rocky Mountain high. This whispered news, though, she calls a Death Valley low. She debated whether she should give her lecture as planned or instead deliver an impassioned plea to bombard senators with letters of SETI support.
“It wouldn’t have done any good,” she says.
Tarter usually accepts the boulders and the grades up which they must be shoved. But she for once accepted that another person’s will could defeat her own.
The next morning, before the debate began, she left on a jet plane back to California. The congressional conversation took place while she was in the air. Even cruising altitude was not quite high enough to give perspective. While she looked down at the clouds and flipped through Skymall, her father’s voice came into her head. “I don’t see why you couldn’t do anything, if you work hard enough.”
Maybe he had been wrong.
She ran to a phone as soon as the plane landed.
“Are we okay?” she asked.
“No,” a colleague said. “It’s done.”
Bryan had won. His press release, typed onto stationery mocked up to look like the SETI Institute’s letterhead, was headlined “Senator Bryan Ends the Great Martian Chase. “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow,” the release continued. “Not a single Martian has said ‘take me to your leader,’ and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval. It may be funny to some, except the punchline includes a $12.3 million price tag to the taxpayer.”
“Don’t leave me alone with any sharp objects,” Tarter said to her husband, Jack Welch, when she arrived home. Just a year earlier, at the High Resolution Microwave Survey launch, she had been so hopeful, had thought such grand thoughts, had compared her team to Columbus, for God’s sake. And now the dream was dead. She couldn’t even push a boulder if she’d tried. All the boulders had, in fact, been summarily carted away.
To the world, though, she showed a stoic face. “This is an enormous setback,” she said to the New York Times. “NASA has spent 20 years and more than $50 million to develop sophisticated digital receivers capable of listening to tens of millions of frequencies at a time. Now, with the observations getting under way, the project is killed.”
Barney Oliver was less circumspect when he wrote for the science newsletter Signals:
Millions of transistors, memory cells, and other high-tech products of our ingenuity have been woven into a brain whose sole aim in life is to detect and verify the origin of tiny signals—less energetic than the smallest atomic particle— that have crossed the light years we cannot. Such signals will tell us that we are not alone, that the astonishing process that has produced us out of the fiery furnace of the Big Bang has also occurred elsewhere. Lo, from that single fact, all our philosophy would be enriched. To save the American Taxpayer about eight cents per year, we are to be denied the chance to explore the universe and the sentient life forms that fill it.
It was the kind of oratory Tarter would later give. But that October she could only mope and avoid her knife block. The next day, though, a call came from the targeted-search project scientist John Dreher, who had joined the team in 1989 after leaving a physics position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“You know,” he said, “if what we were doing yesterday made sense, it’s still going to make sense on Monday. We just have to find some other way.”