John Billingham

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 01 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5863
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Aviation physiologist who led the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

John Billingham never fulfilled his dream of detecting the existence of intelligent life light years beyond the earth. Considered by some to be the “father of astrobiology,” he never stopped believing that intelligent life almost certainly exists in “many other places in the universe.”

“If we find them, there is a very good chance they are older than us, and some may be many millions of years older,” Billingham said in 2009 to a local newspaper reporter who visited him at his home in Penn Valley, California. “That means they must have gone through our future and survived. They could have dealt with wars, pestilence, disease, and overpopulation. Maybe they can give us a hand.”1

Billingham’s quest to discover extraterrestrial intelligence began in earnest in 1968, when he was head of the biotechnology division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He devoured astronomer Carl Sagan’s book, Intelligent Life in the Universe. “It changed my whole life,” Billingham later said. He would spend the next two decades trying to generate financial support …

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