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Why There’s No Place Like Home

Dad pulls a scroll of paper from one of the dozens of crumpling boxes stacked in a chilly warehouse near Santa Cruz, Calif. He gently unrolls it, and a familiar reddish ink pattern appears on the delicate grid.

“Ah,” he says. “This is Ozma.”

His fingertip traces the inky magenta line, and he squints at the faded, penciled-in numbers inscribed near the line’s peaks and valleys. “Is that your handwriting?” I ask. It doesn’t look anything like his. “Nope,” he answers. “It must be the telescope operator’s.”

The scroll my father, Frank Drake, is holding is more than a half-century old. It’s part of the data he collected during an experiment known as Project Ozma. Named after a character in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, the project was the first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. From April to July, 1960, astronomers in Green Bank, West Virginia monitored two nearby, sun-like stars for artificial radio signals—signs that an interstellar intelligence inhabited Earth’s starry skies, that humans were not adrift in an incessantly quiet cosmic ocean.

The entire endeavor cost $2,000.

Frank Drake retrieves a scroll with data on it from Project Ozma. (Nadia Drake)
Frank Drake retrieves a scroll with data on it from Project Ozma. (Nadia Drake)

Dad was in charge; at just 29 years old, he had been planning and building the necessary equipment for the last year and half. He’d determined that the Green Bank telescope should be able to detect radio transmissions coming from up to 10 light-years away, if they were at least as strong as Earth’s. So he selected two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, to aim the telescope at. He built antennas and receivers and amplifiers, and picked a band of radio frequencies to monitor. He came up with a plan to follow if a signal were detected.

“For all we knew at the time, almost every star had strong radio signals coming from it,” he says. “We might look at only a few stars and succeed.”

Finally, before dawn on a chilly West Virginia morning, Dad climbed up the observatory’s 85-foot telescope, fiddled with a finicky signal amplifier, and kicked off an experiment that would ignite decades of scientific discourse about extraterrestrial civilizations. Over the next four months, dozens of scrolls like the one we were staring at would come rolling out of the pen-and-ink data recorder, each bearing a bright red record of radio static from the universe.

Of course, in the end, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani showed no signs of hosting intelligent life. “That was a disappointment,” Dad says. “But as time went on, we began to realize that’s the way the universe is, and it’s not our fault.”

The search is far from over. Increasingly, we’re finding that the ingredients necessary for life on Earth are abundant in the cosmos. Water, organic molecules, and even amino acids—so basic to life as we know it—have been found in space.

And the Milky Way, our home galaxy, is stuffed with planets. Even Project Ozma’s target stars have them. “Planets are plentiful,” astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson confidently stated last night in the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which shows again tonight on the National Geographic Channel. “They outnumber the stars.”

It’s kind of crazy to think that when Dad was collecting the Ozma data, we knew nothing about the abundance of exoplanets—in fact, it would be another three decades before the first exoplanets were reported. Pulsars were still waiting in the wings, and the moon bore no human footprints. It was a different era in astronomy, and though Project Ozma garnered a ton of media attention, thinking about life outside the solar system was still on the fringes of traditional science. But momentum was gathering.

A newspaper story that ran shortly after Ozma. (Photograph by Nadia Drake)
A newspaper story that ran shortly after Project Ozma. (Photograph by Nadia Drake)

The next year, in 1961, dad would organize a conference at Green Bank devoted to thinking about intelligent life in the universe. It was the day before that meeting that the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of detectable intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, would be born.

But that’s a story for another time.

We’d been rummaging through piles of my father’s papers for about an hour before the first signs of Ozma casually surfaced. Before that, we’d found a map he’d made of the galactic center. Another box held data he’d used to determine the temperature on the surface of Venus—an experiment that brought him into contact with a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago named Carl Sagan. Another box held the results of an experiment he and Sagan would conduct at the Arecibo Observatory in the late 1970s, where they surveyed nearby galaxies for intensely bright radio transmissions. And another box has memos from the Voyager record project.

In short, these sagging boxes are filled with the evidence of a life spent exploring the cosmos. It’s this adventurous ideal that led Dad to name the first SETI search after Princess Ozma. “Oz is a land, a strange land, populated by strange and exotic creatures. Which described the sort of place I was about to search for,” he says to me, later. “If we find life out there, it’s going to be much more unearth-like than Oz.”

Nadia and Frank Drake. (Photograph courtesy Nadia Drake)
Nadia and Frank Drake.

And it’s these threads of thought that led me to the name of this blog: No Place Like Home. There are infinite worlds out there, and none of them will be exactly like ours. For millennia, humans have stared at the stars and mapped the movements of heavenly bodies, seeking to learn the mathematical language and physical laws that tell the stories of the spheres. In the last half-century, we’ve managed to launch our robotic creations from Earth’s watery shores and land them on other worlds. Maybe someday, we’ll be going along for the ride as well.

For now, though, we have the science of astronomy and the spaceships of our imagination to show us what else is out there. I’m so excited to be joining National Geographic as a space blogger for Phenomena—just as Cosmos kicks off—and am thrilled to be bringing you tales from beyond our home planet.

When two hours have gone by, it’s time to go home. We carry our folding chairs and lanterns from the warehouse and step into the sunlight. Dad pauses. “After looking at all that stuff,” he says, “For a moment I didn’t know where I was. It feels weird being in California.”