Green Bank Observatory mourns the loss of Frank Drake

Drake speaking at the 2017 dedication of the “new” Green Bank Observatory.

Frank Drake, one of the first scientists to come to Green Bank and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, died at his home in Aptos, California on September 2.

After receiving his PhD from Harvard, Frank joined the NRAO in 1958. Using the new 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank to study radio emission from planets, he observed the remarkably high temperature on the surface of Venus due to the greenhouse effect and then the non-thermal radiation from Jupiter which he correctly suggested was due to Van Allen type radiation belts. During his time in Green Bank, Frank initiated Project Ozma, the first serious and scientific search for signs of extraterrestrial life, and developed the famous and now-eponymous Drake equation.

A portrait of Frank during his time as one of the first scientists in Green Bank. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF.
Project OZMA, the first search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, was conducted in 1960 using the 85 foot Howard E. Tatel Telescope. Attendees at the 1985 workshop celebrating Project Ozma’s 25th anniversary who had been part of the 1960 Project OZMA team gather in front of the Tatel Telescope. Front row, left to right: Bob Viers, Dewey Ross, Bill Meredith, Troy Henderson, Bob Uphoff. Back row, left to right, George Grove, Fred Crews, Omar Bowyer, Frank Drake, Kochu Menon. (GB85-23286-SETIwksp.jpg)
Credit: NSF/DUI/NRAO.
In July 2019, Frank Drake and David Tatel had a conversation at the 85-1 telescope. Built in 1958, it was the first telescope erected at Green Bank, and was used by Drake in his search for extraterrestrial intelligence with Project Ozma. Tatel’s father designed the telescope.

Frank left NRAO in 1963 for JPL and in 1966 he became the Director of the Cornell Arecibo Observatory and then the National Atmospheric and Ionospheric Center. During his fifteen years at Cornell, Frank led the Arecibo program to study the newly discovered pulsars, and together with Carl Sagan initiated a broad program to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. In the 1970s he developed and transmitted the famous Arecibo message and, in collaboration with Sagan and others, was responsible for the Pioneer plaques and the Voyager Golden Records. After leaving Cornell in 1984, Frank joined the University of California at Santa Cruz as Dean of Natural Sciences and became the first President of the brand-new SETI Institute. He will be remembered for his pioneering work in planetary radio astronomy, his kind and supportive mentoring of young scientists, his good-hearted and jovial nature, and as the pioneer and spokesman for the burgeoning searches for extraterrestrial intelligent life.