Frank Drake was born in Chicago on May 28, 1930 to Richard and Winifred Drake. Raised in Chicago's South Shore with sister, Alma, and brother, Robert, he had a fairly typical childhood.
Always interested in science, he and his friends would spend hours experimenting with motors, radios, and chemistry sets. As his understanding of astronomy and the actual size of the universe grew he began to wonder about the possibility of the existence of other planets and life on those planets. The idea seemed reasonable to him. However, because of the religious convictions of his parents and teachers he never felt comfortable bringing up the subject of extraterrestrial life.
After high school Drake enrolled at Cornell on an ROTC scholarship to study electronics. It was here that he fell in love with astronomy and finally found someone else who was considering the possibilities of life on other planets.
In 1951, during his junior year he attended a lecture by Otto Struve, one of the world's preeminent astrophysicists. Towards the end of a lecture Struve showed that there was mounting evidence that planetary systems had most likely formed around half of the stars in the galaxy. Struve went on to state that life could certainly exist on some of those planets. Finally, Drake had found someone who shared his ideas.
After college he spent the next three years with the Navy to repay his scholarship. Thanks to his electronics degree he ended up as the electronics officer on the USS Albany where he gained invaluable experience operating and fixing the latest high tech electronic equipment.
When his Navy tour ended, Drake headed to Harvard graduate school to study optical astronomy. Fortunately, the only summer position available was in radio astronomy. Because of his electronics experience in the Navy he was a natural fit because the radio astronomy equipment was constantly in need of tweaking and repair. Drake got hooked on radio astronomy and never looked back.
Upon finishing graduate school in 1958 he got a position at the newly founded National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. It was here in 1960 that the first search took place. Named Project Ozma by Drake, the search was a two week observation of the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. At one point during the search a false alarm, which turned out to be a terrestrial signal, caused some excitement. Other than that no signals were detected. Hardly expecting to find evidence of advanced civilizations on the first try the searchers were not disappointed by the result, but were encouraged because the search had finally begun.
In 1961 Drake and J. Peter Pearman, an officer on the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, organized the first SETI conference. The three day meeting, held at the NRAO, was a small gathering of a dozen or so scientists who had shown an interest in SETI. It was in preparation for this conference that Drake came up with the now famous Drake Equation:
N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL
The purpose of the equation was to help focus the conference attendees' attention on the crucial questions that needed to be answered in order to determine the chances of SETI's success.
(Try your own hand with the Drake Equation. Choose your best guess for each variable and see how many communicating civilizations there are in the galaxy. Click here.)
In 1963 Drake took a short-lived position at the Jet Propulsion Lab and later that year he took a position at Cornell's Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. Two years later he accepted the directorship of the Cornell run Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Drake and his family returned to Cornell in 1968.
To be continued..