E.T., Phone the Bay Area

07/12/2011 10:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

According to Star Trek mythos, Starfleet Command -- operational headquarters for a flotilla of craft that keep the cosmic peace -- is located in San Francisco's Presidio, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (still carrying traffic, even in the 23rd century). Starfleet Academy, boot camp for future Starfleet crews, is sited across the Bay, near present-day San Quentin.

It's heartening to think that prisoners will eventually yield to astronauts, but it's unclear why the United Federation of Planets -- a group of alien societies controlling one percent of the galaxy -- should pitch their headquarters in this famed, peninsular city. Maybe alien diplomats just appreciate the restaurant choice.

Star Trek's genial premise is that the cosmos is flush with intelligent species, and our descendants will interact with them face-to-face, thanks to warp drive and some winsome space cadets. It's a scenario familiar to just about everyone old enough to chew their own food.

But what most people don't know is that if we make contact with real extraterrestrials, the encounter is likely to be thanks to a handful of Bay Area scientists.

Their work is called SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- and the idea behind it is simple. First, note that today's rocket scientists don't have warp drive (indeed, it's unclear whether we, or any other species, will ever have warp drive.) So we can't blast off and boldly go to other star systems to seek out wrinkly aliens on their home turf. And, despite what you see on television, there's no widely accepted evidence that the extraterrestrials have come here.

But what's eminently possible is to search for radio signals or laser pulses that extraterrestrials might beam our way, either as a deliberate attempt to get in touch, or as unavoidable radio chatter from some other activity, such as placing solar energy satellites in orbit around their planet.

This might all sound implausible, given the vast distances that separate the stars (even the closest is many trillions of miles away) and the readily noticeable fact that radio signals become weaker with distance. But simple calculation shows that technology no more advanced than today's best radar equipment is sufficient for sending and receiving signals across these distances. If we can do it, barely a century after Marconi, wouldn't this be child's play for a society that was millennia or more beyond ours?

The idea of close encounters of the zero'th kind -- which is to say, not a close encounter at all, but simply uncovering evidence that someone's out there -- dates back to the Victorian era. At the time, German scientists proposed ingenious schemes to use lanterns, fires, and large-scale civil engineering projects to signal the putative inhabitants of Mars, a planet they suggested was populated by creatures at least as clever as your average European.

Today, this idea has been refined with better technology and a suppler knowledge of astronomy. In the 1970s, a small group of scientists and engineers at NASA Ames Research Center in the South Bay, considered the feasibility of building radio equipment able to pick up signals from our cosmic confreres, assuming they exist. No surprise: the technology was within our grasp. It made sense to try eavesdropping on E.T.

What's turned out to be a much bigger challenge is to find the money to do so. In 1992, NASA -- having spent a decade designing and constructing specialized SETI receivers -- was finally poised to scan the skies. If a signal were found, that would tell us something really interesting: namely, that there are sentient beings on other worlds, far beyond the bounds of Earth. But scarcely a year later, there was bad news: The U.S. Senate stopped support for the project. The good news was that by doing so, they saved each taxpayer 4 cents per year.

Today, with funding restricted to private donors and a few university salaries, SETI continues on a limited scale. In Mountain View, you'll find the private, non-profit SETI Institute, an organization that inherited much of the NASA effort (which it has significantly improved.) In Berkeley, at the University of California, there's a SETI group that hunts for radio signals using antennas normally devoted to astronomical research. A small contingent of academics at Harvard University is looking for flashing laser pulses from other worlds, and there are some radio SETI experiments underway in Italy and South Korea.

Bottom line? If we find E.T. by picking up a radio signal, that discovery has a good chance of being made by Bay Area scientists, and you'll be proud to say that you live here.

Unfortunately, the outlook for the project remains clouded. With federal funding gone, all SETI experiments run on fumes -- the total number of employees (world-wide) is fewer than the White House kitchen staff. And as an indication of how precarious this back-burner experiment has become, the Allen Telescope Array -- a northern California instrument that can be used 24/7 for SETI work -- was put into "hibernation" in April for lack of operating monies. The SETI Institute is now seeking donations and other funding to get it back to scanning the sky.

It may be comforting to note that SETI's difficulties would be familiar to earlier explorers like Columbus or Magellan. Despite every reasonable expectation that there was great value in reaching the Far East by sailing west, raising enough money to put keels in the water was a tough slog. Today's exploratory efforts are similarly hobbled.

But the incentive to keep trying is strong. Data from orbiting telescopes like NASA's Kepler Mission hint that the tally of habitable planets in our galaxy is many billion. If E.T.'s not out there, then Earth is more than merely special -- it's some sort of miracle. That might be comforting for a few. But wouldn't it be interesting to know that our profoundest worries and hopes are not ours alone?

If you inspect the heraldry of Starfleet Command, you'll find a Latin motto that translates as "from the stars, knowledge." Optimistic and outward-looking. It would be a good choice for SETI, too.