NASA official, former head of SETI dies in Grass Valley |

NASA official, former head of SETI dies in Grass Valley

Maya Anderman
Staff Writer

Dr. John Billingham, a NASA official and head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, died Aug. 4 in Grass Valley at the age of 83 (see his obituary, A5).

Billingham was born in Worcester, England, in 1930. He studied at Oxford University, where he received a degree in physiology and graduated with honors.

Billingham led quite the scientific career. After graduation, he spent six years working in the medical field of the Royal Air Force. In the 1960s, he moved to Houston and worked for NASA by helping design water-cooled spacesuits for astronauts.

He ran the life science division at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, where he used radio telescopes to search for signals emitted by more advanced civilizations in the galaxy.

“At the end of the day, (John Billingham) made a difference and gave something back, and that’s what he wanted, to contribute.”
Graham Billingham, Son

He is most known for his work with the SETI Institute. Though originally run by NASA, SETI lost its federal funding and went on to become a nonprofit organization supported by private donations and sponsored by universities.

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"It's interesting because he gets so much attention for SETI, which was the crescendo of his career, because it is an amazing concept, but he had a really cool career before that, and a lot of that stuff gets overshadowed by the 'looking for aliens' thing that everybody likes to read about," said son Bob Billingham.

"There's more to the guy than the little green men," he said.

Billingham and his wife, Margaret Macpherson, were married for 54 years. Margaret, who died in 2009, was a professor at Stanford Medical School.

"Both my parents are part of the fabric of my family," said son Graham Billingham.

Billingham retired in 1994 and moved to Penn Valley with Margaret (The Union featured Billingham's work in a December 2009 story).

His sons said he was well-loved in the area and known for his support and generosity.

"My father had great wit, was extraordinarily intelligent, but most of all, he was a very kind, gentle person who believed in making a difference," said Graham Billingham. "He was a brilliant physician, scientist and explorer of space. I think the biggest thing he was trying to accomplish in his life, though, was the possibility of life in the universe. The ultimate question of 'are we alone?'"

Although Billingham never confirmed any other forms of life in the universe, he never gave up trying, no matter who or what was in the way.

"My father received a lot of attention in the scientific community, but the skeptical, hungry politicians didn't choose to support him," said Bob Billingham. "He was characterized as crazy with all his alien business, but none of them ever sat down and thought about it, and the problems these findings could solve. When they were able to shift the effort over from government funding, the SETI institute was very successful. It was a worthwhile project."

"My family would really like to reach out to the communities of Nevada County and thank them for all of the love and support they have shown my parents, and in particular to thank emergency medical team at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital," said Graham Billingham.

"In a nutshell, my father was an incredible man who led an extraordinary life. At the end of the day, he made a difference and gave something back, and that's what he wanted, to contribute."

Maya Anderman, a Nevada Union High School grad, is an intern with The Union. Contact her via email at

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