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“Who are we?”

That impossible question opened the 2015 public letter announcing a well-heeled SETI project called Breakthrough Listen. Dozens of people—scientists, astronauts, and also a producer, a chess champ, and a soprano—signed the note, which kicked off a $100 million effort by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to catch signals from alien civilizations. That quest, Milner and the signatories hoped, would answer that existential query. “With cooperation and commitment,” the letter continued, “the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.”

This wasn’t Milner’s first foray into science funding. In 2012, his foundation set up the Fundamental Physics Prize, which passes $3 million and red-carpet accolades to promising researchers. The next year, he set up the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the year after that came an award in math. Milner has also started a program to send a missive to aliens (Breakthrough Message), to develop technology to find Earth-like planets nearby (Breakthrough Watch), and to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri (Breakthrough Starshot). Together, Listen, Message, Watch, and Starshot are called the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Milner, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Silicon Valley companies Facebook and Twitter, isn’t alone in his scientific ventures. Joining him on Breakthrough’s boards and bank accounts are some of the tech world’s other heavy hitters, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet’s Sergey Brin, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma. In a time when scientists have to scrounge for every last penny of grant money, these philanthropic efforts seem like lifesavers, helping keep a select few afloat while others continue to flounder.

But last Sunday, investigations into the Paradise Papers revealed that some of the money Milner had invested was connected to the Russian state. That blurs the nature of the wealth backing the various Breakthroughs, and has caused some scientists to question the ethics of accepting these prizes and participating in these projects. Beyond that whole authoritarian government thing, too, is the question of why all these internet moguls are so deep in on science—and just how deep in they are.

The context for tech’s participation in Breakthrough Stuff—specifically, the alien-focused Initiatives—goes back decades. Silicon Valley’s interest in alt-life started in earnest in the ’70s, says SETI pioneer Jill Tarter. In 1971, NASA published the Project Cyclops Report, which laid out how humans could systematically search for radio signals from ET. The project was co-directed by Hewlett-Packard R&D lead Barney Oliver. “Once Barney got the bug, he button-holed everyone he knew in the first generation of Silicon Valley engineers and bent their ear about Cyclops and SETI,” says Tarter. Technologists—Hewlett, Packard, and Paul Allen in the ’90s and early aughts, Qualcomm’s Franklin Antonio more recently, and Milner lately—have been seeding alien-seeking ever since.

Breakthrough’s web of web entrepreneurs is tangled up—with itself and with federal space science. The intertwining starts, interestingly, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California—just over eight miles down from Facebook HQ and around three from Google, and a hop-skip down the hill from Yuri Milner’s $100 million house (who knew finding a suitable place to live cost as much as finding aliens?).

Starting in 2006, scientist Pete Worden acted as director of Ames. That year, in an entrance interview with Space News, he laid out a vision: “We would like to be a template for working with the private sector,” he said. Under Worden’s leadership, Ames’s private partnerships flourished, and he brought the private sector’s attitude—do it fast, do it cheap—to space missions, making Ames a leader in smallsat development. At the campus’s NASA Research Park, companies and non-profits could pay rent for space, from which they could collaborate closely with industry, academic, and government partners. Among the current park partners is the Breakthrough Prize.

Another company affiliated with a Breakthrough board member—in this case, Sergey Brin—also leases part of Ames. In 2014, an Alphabet tentacle called Planetary Ventures, LLC, signed a 60-year lease at the NASA center (this after a smaller-scale Google lease of 42 acres in 2014). Planetary Ventures now has rights to 1,000 acres on Ames, acreage that includes historic hangars just a couple parking lots over from the Research Park. Ames declined to comment on either Breakthrough’s or Google’s recent leases.

In February 2015, Worden retired from Ames. He wanted “to pursue some long-held dreams in the private sector,” he said in his announcing email. Those dreams perhaps became clearer to the outside world after the Breakthrough Listen letter came out just a few months later: Worden, newly chairman…



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