Astronomer Frank Drake, famed for SETI and ‘Drake Equation’ in search of extraterrestrial intelligence, dead at 92

A pioneer in the field of radio astronomy, and particularly the search for extraterrestrial life, has sadly passed away.

Frank Drake, who fathered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and developed his namesake “Drake Equation,” died on Friday at the age of 92, according to a news release from the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Drake has been honored as a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, a school that he joined in 1984 as its Dean of Natural Sciences until he retired in 1996, though he continued to serve unofficially until his death.

Drake’s death was first announced by his daughter, freelance science journalist Nadia Drake, who wrote on her website that her father had “died peacefully at home in Aptos, California on September 2, of natural causes.

“My Papa D was beloved by many, and for many reasons, but above all, today I celebrate his humanity, his tenderness, his gentle spirit. A titan in life, Dad leaves a titanic absence,” she added. “He was special to many of you, so on behalf of everyone whose lives he touched: We love you, Dad. You loved us, you taught us, you guided us. Ad Astra, my sweet Papa D. The stars are lucky.”

A lifelong passion for astronomy

UCSC noted that Drake was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1930 and went on to graduate with an engineering degree from Cornell University before obtaining advanced degrees in astronomy from Harvard University. Amid his higher education, Drake also served in the U.S. Navy from 1952-1955 as an electronics officer.

In the 1060s, Drake served as the head of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where he developed what would become known as the “Drake Equation,” a complex formulation used to estimate the number of potentially advanced civilizations with intelligent lifeforms in galaxies across the universe that is still in use today.

Drake also worked briefly with NASA following his tenure at the NRAO before returning to Cornell in 1964 as an astronomy professor. During that period he also served as director of the Arecibo Observatory located in Puerto Rico and was responsible for sending the first deliberate interstellar radio message into space in 1974.

In addition to the so-called “Arecibo message,” Drake also played a collaborative role in crafting special plaques for the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft as well as a special “Golden Record” included on the Voyager 1 and 2 crafts that bore messages intended for any intelligent life that may eventually come into contact with those crafts that originated from earth.

Credited with spurring acceptance of the search for extraterrestrial life reported that Drake earned enormous credit for being the first to broach the once-“taboo” subject among astronomers and scientists of the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms in the vast universe.

When Drake first postulated his namesake equation to try and determine the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations across the galaxy in 1961, he had already been using advanced radio telescopes at that time to search for any signs of such life, but it was his efforts to establish SETI that truly left a mark on society.

“His strategy is still enthusiastically deployed six decades after his pioneering SETI experiment. This is a truly remarkable circumstance, and nearly unprecedented in exploration,” Seth Shostak, a former colleague and fellow radio astronomer, said of his friend in a 2020 tribute to his work.