Remembering Frank Drake, Professor Emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics - pioneer in search for extraterrestrial intelligence

To: UC Santa Cruz Community

From: CPEVC Lori Kletzer

Dear Campus Community, 

I write today with sadness to share news of the passing of Frank Drake, UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics and an eminent radio astronomer. Drake was known for pioneering work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He died at his home in Aptos on Sept. 2. He was 92. 

Drake was a groundbreaking explorer in his field. In the early 1960s, as head of telescope operations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, W.Va. he conducted the first organized search for radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial sources. One of his goals was  to answer one of the biggest questions still unanswered today: are we alone in the universe?

In 1961, he convened a group of ten scientists that included Carl Sagan; biochemist Melvin Calvin who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry during the workshop; Barney Oliver, research chief of Hewlett-Packard; and dolphin expert John Lilly. They came together secretly to talk about the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. During that gathering, Drake devised the “Drake Equation,” to estimate the number of communicative extraterrestrial civilizations scientists might be able to find in the Milky Way galaxy. In 2012, Drake told the New York Times that according to the equation, there are 100 billion ‘suitable stars in the galaxy.’ “I’ve known all along we have to look at a million stars.” Sixty years later, the equation still stands. 

In 1974, Drake created the first interstellar message to be deliberately sent into space from Earth via radio waves from the Arecibo Observatory. And he partnered with Carl Sagan and others to design the Pioneer Plaque that was carried on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft and the “Golden Record” on Voyager 1 and 2, messages to any intelligent life that might come in contact with the vehicles. 

Drake came to UC Santa Cruz in 1984, as the dean of the Division of Natural Sciences. He took undergraduates into space through his innovative courses for non-science majors, and helped undergraduate and graduate students take their studies to deeper levels through his mentoring. 

He retired from UCSC in 1996, but that did not end his search to detect extraterrestrial life. He continued working on radio telescope design and joined projects at UC’s Lick Observatory. 

Frank Drake was born in Chicago in 1930. He received a B.A. in engineering physics from Cornell University and went on to continue his studies at Harvard University earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in astronomy. He served briefly as chief of the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and then returned to his alma mater joining Cornell’s astronomy faculty in 1964. In 1976, he was appointed the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy. Drake was also associate director of the university’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research and director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico from 1966-1968. 

He was dedicated to pursuing knowledge in his field and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence inside and outside the university setting. For 19 years, Drake served as chair of the board of trustees of the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on research and education related to the search for life beyond Earth. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, served as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vice president of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Physics and Astronomy, and director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute. 

I offer my condolences to our community members who had the privilege of being Frank Drake’s colleagues, students, mentees, and friends. I am grateful for the legacy he has left our university and the impact he has had and will continue to have in the years ahead. 



Lori Kletzer

Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor