I never knew my great-grandfather all that well. When I was young, he was already in his 90s, and had settled down in California, far from my midwestern home. After his death, at the miraculous age of 102, few memories of him remained with me. I learned more about him through the impressions he made on my relatives and the stories they told about him than I ever did in my own personal experience.

I was intrigued then, upon discovering Sharing The Universe in a pile of books in my childhood home, to find a folded sheet of paper under the cover of the book, which fell out when I picked it up. It was a letter thanking my great-grandfather for contributing to the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. The letter was dated March 16, 1999, meaning that my great-grandfather was 98 years old when he became an annual contributor to SETI.

Though it was a small contribution, it made an impression on me. What do you choose to support at the age of 98? I had never heard anything from my relatives regarding my great-grandfather’s beliefs or suspicions of the possibility of extraterrestrial life or intelligence. Yet it was something that, in his final years, he decided to support. And here I was, fifteen years later, reaching for a book that caught my eye and discovering a connection to a great-grandfather that I never really knew.

I’ve been interested in aliens of all types and incarnations for a long time. As a young child, I spent many years dreaming of becoming an astronaut. As I grew older, I fell in love with the depth and richness of the implausible and semi-plausible sci-fi universes of Star Wars and Star Trek, and soon stumbled upon the similarly engaging literary works of Dick, Asimov, Delaney, Herbert, and many others. As I grew older, I became interested in the ways that speculative fiction embodies the cultural attitudes and issues of the present, and am currently researching the ways in which artists today use speculative fiction to reflect current issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Recently, I’ve also discovered that a number of people that I respect and trust, smart people that range from close college friends to professional adults, do firmly believe in UFOs or extraterrestrial intelligence.

I do not know if my great-grandfather and I held the same broad fascination with aliens in media, and, supposedly, real life. What I do know is that my great-grandfather, having been born in 1901, had lived through the birth and infancy of human aviation, and always had an eye on the sky. Though his eyesight disqualified him from being a pilot, he was dedicated to the airline industry, developing new technologies that eventually would earn him a place in the Aviation Hall of Fame. He grew up in an age in which flying was unusual and strange, but his wonder at the miracle of human aviation directed him to set his sights on the skies and imagine the possibilities.

It’s this wonder and imagination that provides the basis for speculation in both real life and fictional media. We are a society that is just barely beginning to explore our small corner of the galaxy, and what we know about our universe is far outstripped by what we don’t know. This blank in our knowledge can provide the space to imagine a better flight system, or a fictional society, or the real possibility that we’re not alone in the universe.

Shostak, in Sharing the Universe, treats the subject well. He admits that the existence of extraterrestrial life is entirely theoretical, but adequately supports all his ideas, as well as providing historical details of the development of astronomy through the ages and the search for extraterrestrial life both inside and outside the solar system. He does not aim to prove the existence of life amongst the stars, but rather to present the possibility and examine what that possibility might mean to us. He pokes fun at the illogical portrayal of extraterrestrials in the media with tongue-in-cheek references and witty remarks, and fully acknowledges the odds against making contact in the near future—but still insists that the search is worth it. Evidently, my great-grandfather agreed; I do too.

Though it’s just a book, one that, judging by its condition, he never even opened, it’s revealed a piece of my great-grandfather within me, an attitude and sense of wonder passed down through generations. I see it in my father, and my grandmother, and my other relatives—a blend of common-sense practicality and trust in hard science bound together with the joy of living in a world, in a universe, full of mystery. Mystery that makes it worth it to keep our eyes and ears and minds open. Perhaps I am more closely connected to my great-grandfather than I had thought.

R.I.P. Raymond D. Kelly, 1901-2003