Nasa scientist and ex-RGS Worcester pupil – obituary

30 Aug 2013

Former RGS Worcester pupil John Billingham, who was a Nasa scientist of considerable influence over thirty years, has died at the age of 83.

His death resulted in obituaries in both The Times and The New York Times, focusing on his contribution to the development of spacesuits and his highly public search for extraterrestrial life via the establishment of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in 1992 after 20 years of research. Mr Billingham was born in 1930, and along with his younger brother Geoffrey, attended RGS Worcester, where his father Edgar was Head of the English Department and later on a benefactor to the school, after 36 years’ service.

Mr Billingham was an RGS scholar, who also represented the school in rugby and athletics. Although his report in 1944 noted “…satisfactory progress on the whole” in Chemistry, Physics and Biology, he left RGS in 1948 having won a War Memorial Scholarship to University College, Oxford, to read Physiology. From there he qualified as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital, London before joining the RAF as a medical officer. He rose to become Squadron Leader, specializing in the problems of survival in near-space.

It was this expert knowledge that led to him joining Nasa in 1963, initially working at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre in Houston and then transferring to the Nasa Research Centre in California. It was this institution that asked a question within its mission statement about whether intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe, a question that is still being asked today: “Are we alone?” It was this question that Mr Billingham sought to answer.

Together with the head of research at Hewlett-Packard he outlined the Cyclops programme, which planned to deploy giant radio telescopes to detect signals from distant planets. In 1992 SETI launched under his leadership, but whereas President Kennedy had been a wholehearted advocate for all things space in the 1960s, the climate changed and funding for such an ambitious project became hard-fought. But he proved impressively dogged and successful in this process, even securing $25 million from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.

He retired from the directorship of SETI in 1995, but continued to write on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence.