The longer, more meaningful answer has to do with how much the field of astronomy has changed in the last 25 years. Our knowledge and understanding about the cosmos has changed dramatically since Bryan’s crusade.
As humans developed more powerful telescopes and techniques, as they looked deeper into the cosmos, as far as the earliest stars, the friendlier to life, or at least the possibility of its emergence, the cosmos began to seem. When Bryan terminated NASA’s SETI funding, the only planets we know of were those in our solar system. Today, there are 3,725 known exoplanets and counting. More than 900 of those are thought to have solid, rocky surfaces like Earth. The majority of these discoveries come from Kepler, a NASA spacecraft that launched nearly a decade ago.
“Kepler showed us that planets are as common as cheap motels, so that was a step along the road to finding other life because at least there’s the real estate,” says Shostak. “That doesn’t mean there’s any life there, but at least there are planets.”
In the last few years, several astronomical discoveries have permeated major news cycles and garnered considerable attention. There was Tabby’s Star, a distant star with a jumble of objects floating around it (that astronomers later determined was probably just dust.) There was TRAPPIST-1, a system of seven planets, with several orbiting in their star’s habitable zone. And there was ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object that Milner instructed astronomers to check for signs of artificial technology. They didn’t detect any, but for a time, the thought of getting a positive result, however unlikely, was exhilarating.
Since its inception, SETI has suffered from a giggle factor. Today, after 25 years of discoveries and breakthroughs and progress, the suggestion that we might someday—and perhaps someday soon—stumble upon an alien civilization, even the remains of one, doesn’t seem quite so silly anymore.
Still, the perception of SETI as unscientific and frivolous, remains in some corners, particularly on Capitol Hill, where the subject is often held up as an example of misguided government spending. During a committee hearing for the proposed legislation in April, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, invoked the technosignatures measure as she criticized her Republican colleagues’ for wanting to cut earth- and climate-science funding.
“Where does all this money go? The majority diverts it to searching for space aliens and to the president’s unexamined initiative to build an orbiting moon base, among other things,” Johnson said. “I wish I were joking.”
For SETI researchers, it was déjà vu. “Space aliens” is not so different from “little green men.”
As recently as January of this year, Tarter suggested a rebranding for SETI. “SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely,” she said. SETI “is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.” Call it SETT instead, she said.