Michael J. Weiss and Maria Wilhelm
October 19, 1981 12:00 PM

When Queen Isabella of Spain gave Christopher Columbus money to go off and search for a continent to the west, there surely was some 15th-century fiscal conservative who asked: “What do we need with a New World when the old one still works?” If so, he has a soul mate in the 97th Congress: Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire. He and Sen. Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico have recently been engaged in a no-holds-barred fight over giving NASA $2 million a year to listen for signals of intelligent life in outer space. Without the funding, NASA scientist John Billingham will have to turn off his cosmic radio and give up hope of hearing from what skeptical and hopeful scientists alike have come to call “the little green men.”

Proxmire, the 65-year-old ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, had his first close encounter with NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) study in 1979, when he gave it his Golden Fleece award. The citation was addressed to “one of the biggest, most ridiculous examples of wasteful spending,” and Proxmire proposed to defer it “for a few million light-years.” His argument was persuasive: “If our best scientists wanted to look for intelligence,” he said, “they ought to start right here in Washington.” Retorted a spokesman for NASA: “Why start a project which is doomed to fail?” Congress denied NASA money for the search.

Set back but not defeated, NASA managed to find money for the study in the budget of another program. It proceeded to authorize the design of a “multichannel spectrum analyzer” that would listen to 10 million radio channels from a 210-foot radio telescope in Goldstone, Calif., a 1,000-foot dish in Puerto Rico and other facilities. When Proxmire found out about the plan last summer he was furious. “At a time when we’re cutting spending for the handicapped, poor children’s education and nutrition programs,” he says, “spending money to look for life outside the solar system is just wrong.” In that spirit, he got an amendment passed specifically killing the study.

At that, Schmitt, who wasn’t in the Senate on the August day when the vote was taken, declared war. Schmitt, a Republican, says he’s as much of a tightwad as his opponent. But, as a former astronaut and the last man to walk on the moon, he argues that $2 million isn’t too much to spend in pursuit of what would be “one of the most profound discoveries in human history.”

Billingham, 51, the English-born scientist in charge of SETI at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., concedes a point to Proxmire: “We have absolutely no proof of life outside earth.” In 1967, astronomers at Cambridge University heard what seemed to be an artificial radio signal from what they called “LGM-1″—for little green man—but that turned out to be radiation from a rapidly spinning star called a pulsar. Still, Billingham figures it is “very, very likely” that there is life up there. “You can speculate, discuss and argue about extraterrestrial intelligence,” he says, “but in the last analysis, the only way to know is to go and look.”

That is going to get tougher, he says, as the airwaves on earth get more crowded with TV, radio, weather satellites “and even the taxi down the road—we’re listening for whispers in a thunderstorm. If 10 years went by without SETI, we might drown out forever our chance of receiving signals from other intelligent life.”

SETI’s deputy director, Michael Klein, argues for the project from cosmic probability: “Our sun is a puny, middle-aged, middle-class, not very special star. In our galaxy alone, there are over 100 billion other suns. And there are over 10 billion other galaxies. It is a highly provincial and conceited view for us to say we are really unique in the universe.” Billingham argues the lessons of history. “Five hundred years ago America hadn’t been discovered,” he says. “For all people knew, it didn’t exist.”

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