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John Billingham, 83; seeker of extraterrestrial life

John Billingham was former director of the SETI Program Office and Director of the Life Sciences Division at the NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA Ames Research Center

John Billingham was former director of the SETI Program Office and Director of the Life Sciences Division at the NASA Ames Research Center.

NEW YORK — 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 Aug. 4 in Grass Valley, Calif. He was 83.

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

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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.

Operating as the nonprofit SETI Institute, based in Mountain View, Calif., Dr. Billingham and a team of scientists cobbled together financing from universities and high-tech billionaires to keep the effort going. The Allen Telescopic Array, jointly owned by the institute and the University of California, Berkeley, is named for Paul G. Allen, a cofounder of Microsoft, who gave $25 million to the cause.

Although the federal government no longer pays SETI scientists to search for intergalactic radio signals, federal grants have helped pay for some of the SETI equipment used in recent years. Government emphasis has shifted toward another endeavor Dr. Billingham supported: the rapidly expanding field of astrobiology, which includes searching for extraterrestrial life at the most microbial level, not just forms that might transmit radio signals.

Dr. Billingham first learned of astrobiology, then called exobiology, in 1968, through the work of astronomer and author Carl Sagan and others.

“It changed my whole life,” he once wrote.

Three years later, he recruited Barney Oliver, the research chief of Hewlett-Packard, to host a symposium at which they and others sketched out a plan for using a $10 billion array of giant radio telescopes to search for extraterrestrials. They called it Project Cyclops.

Dr. Billingham was born on March 18, 1930, in Worcester, England. He completed his medical studies at Oxford in 1954 and later spent six years as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force. He joined NASA in 1963, becoming chief of its environmental physiology branch later that year at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He moved to the Ames Research Center in 1965 and spent the next several years in NASA’s biotechnology divisions while he built support for SETI.

In addition to his sons, he leaves four grandchildren. His wife, the former Margaret Macpherson, also a physician, died in 2009.

SETI was not formally incorporated into Dr. Billingham’s official job title at NASA until March 1991, when he became chief of the space agency’s Office of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. When financing was eliminated three years later, he became a senior scientist at the SETI Institute.

One of Dr. Billingham’s concerns was how to respond to a radio signal from space. To answer the question, he helped draft the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” The document allowed that a proper response would depend on the signal received. Only so much advance planning is possible.

“A lot of people think this is silly, but we need to give a lot of thought to a reply,” Dr. Billingham said in 1992. “It is not a question just for scientists and engineers. Already we agree on one rule: Don’t reply unless you have undertaken extensive international consultation.”

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