Childs, Martin, The Independent (London, England)
Scientist who searched for extra-terrestrial intelligence
John Billingham, an Englishman with an unconventional academic background, was a senior Nasa official who helped design astronaut suits and other spaceflight technology and was a catalyst in the search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life. In the 1970s, in the face of opposition and ridicule, Billingham helped persuade the US government to use radio and optical telescopes to scour the universe for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. He transformed the Seti Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) from an occasional experiment into a systematic programme; also responsible for work on the origin and evolution of life in the universe, he was described at Nasa as "the Father of Seti".
Although Nasa's formal search did not begin until 1992, Billingham had spent two decades planning, networking and manoeuvring Nasa into the search. He announced, "We sail into the future, just as Columbus did on this day 500 years ago. We accept the challenge of searching for a new world." But within a year Congress pulled the plug on a "waste of taxpayers' money" in the words of one critic, "a great Martian chase".
Born in Worcester in 1930, Billingham excelled at the Royal Grammar School, where he was a scholar. He progressed to University College, Oxford where, while reading physiology, he played rugby and continued his interest in photography, which became a lifelong passion.
Graduating, he moved to Guy's Hospital. While there he continued his hobby of photography and was elected an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in 1953. He also developed his first interest in space exploration, attending meetings of the British Interplanetary Society. In 1954 he returned to Oxford for his final medical exams. He met his wife, Margaret while the pair were working at Hampstead General Hospital in north London.
The same year, Billingham joined the RAF as a medical officer, rising to the rank of squadron leader, with a special interest in survival in the demanding and hostile environment of near-space. He was invited to join Nasa at the Space Centre in Houston, and moved to the US in 1963. He became Chief of the Environmental Physiology department in the Crew Systems Division, working on the medical and physiological aspects of space flight during the Mercury and Gemini programmes, and on the planning for Apollo. He helped introduce the thermal cooling suit for astronauts to wear during the intense heat of extra-vehicular activity and during their lunar surface explorations.
Two years later Billingham moved to Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California, rising to deputy chief of the Biotechnology Division, examining problems of space medicine, physiology and biotechnology. He was drawn to SETI by Carl Sagan's and Iosif Shklovsky's …
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Publication information: Article title: John Billingham. Contributors: Childs, Martin - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 13, 2013. Page number: 50. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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