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Samuel Thomas Pierson, known to friends and colleagues simply as “Tom,” died of cancer at the Stanford Hospital, Stanford, California, February 20, 2014 after a long illness. He was the founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and the Chief Executive Officer for most of its 30-year history. Under his leadership the Institute grew from ten employees in 1984 to more than 130 today, and over the years served as the institutional home for more than 700 individuals engaged in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and astrobiology. During that time Pierson administered over a quarter of a billion dollars in funded research.
Tom was born March 22, 1950 in Norman, Oklahoma, the son of Ted and Laura Pierson. He obtained a Bachelor's degree in accounting in the School of Business at the University of Oklahoma in 1972, after two and a half years as an aerospace engineering undergraduate student. He received his M.B.A. a few years later at San Francisco State University, and spent eight and a half years there as the associate director for Research Administration at the university’s Research Foundation. During that time he garnered experience in the management of research grants and contracts, expertise that would serve him well in what turned out to be his life work in service of SETI. He also met his future wife, Elyse Murray, who worked in the grants office.
In April, 1976 Tom met radio astronomer Charles Seeger (brother of folk singer Pete Seeger), who was an adjunct faculty member at San Francisco State. Seeger had a grant through the university to support his SETI work and gave Tom a copy of both the “Cyclops Report,” a design study for a mammoth array of radio telescopes for SETI, and the pioneering report of meetings chaired by Philip Morrison, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (NASA SP-419), which recommended NASA’s involvement in SETI. So began Tom’s interest in this “far out” subject, which percolated over the years after more interaction with Seeger.
It was Seeger who connected Tom to the nascent NASA SETI group at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. With his expertise in grants administration, Seeger thought Tom could help SETI researchers stretch their funding. In June 1984 Tom met with John Billingham, Chief of Life Sciences at NASA Ames, and Barney Oliver the recently retired Vice President and Director of Research at Hewlett-Packard, who was now working in the NASA SETI office. By this time Elyse Murray was working for Oliver and Billingham and played a further role in introducing Tom to the promise and problems of SETI. In September Oliver called him back for more consultations, including meetings with Frank Drake, the SETI pioneer who had conducted the first SETI search as part of Project Ozma in 1960. Their uniform complaint was that university overhead rates were taking scarce funding that could have been used for research; out of $1.5 million granted at the time, more than half went for overhead. Tom realized the situation was ripe for a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization to be developed as an institutional home for SETI-related scientists. On November 20, 1984 the SETI Institute was legally incorporated with Tom as its Chief Executive Officer, and on December 20 the founding board meeting of the SETI Institute occurred at a restaurant in Los Altos. NASA awarded the SETI Institute’s first grant to Jill Tarter and Ivan Linscott the following spring.
Over the next decade the SETI Institute played an important role in building the NASA SETI program in conjunction with the SETI program office at NASA Ames, including a landmark series of workshops on the “Cultural Aspects of SETI,” conducted in 1991 and 1992 near Santa Cruz. This was in the run-up to the inauguration of NASA SETI observations, symbolically begun on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first landfall. Ironically, the SETI Institute also played a crucial role in 1993 when Congress terminated the NASA SETI program after only one year of observations. The Institute took over the targeted portion of the program, and raised more than 90 million dollars in private funding over the next two decades to keep SETI going, most recently in the form of the Allen Telescope Array. The Institute gradually broadened its activities into other areas of astronomy and astrophysics, most notably astrobiology, as that revitalized discipline thrived in the late 1990s following the discovery of exoplanets, accelerated research on extremophiles, and progress in other issues related to life in the universe.
It was during the period just prior to the NASA SETI observations that I came to know Tom well, and became one of his part-time employees as the official historian for what was then known as the “High Resolution Microwave Survey,” also known as the NASA SETI program. I last saw him in 2010 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, during the project Ozma 50th anniversary Symposium, where he participated in a session “Is SETI Still Sustainable in the Long Term?,” a question still very much unresolved. His gentle manner, and his combination of enthusiasm, humility and expertise in financial management, served the SETI Institute well. Tom had a broad outlook, and championed astrobiology and SETI wherever he went. His establishment of the Center for Education and Outreach within the SETI Institute reflected his determination to spread the word about science and the search for life, even as he enjoyed more down-to-Earth activities such as golfing, baseball, cycling, and time with his family.
Only days before his death, Tom received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal "for Distinguished Service to NASA and the scientific community through leadership of the SETI Institute, supporting basic research and education dealing with life in the universe." He passed away peacefully with his family at his side. He is survived by his wife Elyse and three children, Justin, Thomas, and Elizabeth.
An oral history interview conducted by Steven J. Dick is available at the NASA Headquarters History Office. Tom Pierson’s own account of the birth of the SETI Institute is at http://www.seti.org/origin-of-the-institute.
Obituary written by: Steven J. Dick (NASM)
BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2014, 46, 001