Space has been a little disappointing for the last few decades. Since the moon, everything has turned out kind of barren. Every SETI-related result of the past 30 years has been disheartening — “there was once water on Mars” doesn’t really do it for me. There are two big exceptions. One is Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, which are still cool and could do with more checking out.
The other is the search for other solar systems. Starting in 1995, we’ve been finding craploads of planets around every star we look at. The better we build our telescopes, the more planets we see. It seems more and more likely that a lot of stars have solar systems like ours. And if Mars could’ve had water, and we have water, water probably isn’t uncommon. Things are looking up for life in the universe, even if they’re looking down for our neighborhood.
I think we haven’t made contact with aliens by radio yet because we’re looking in a very limited set of places, not because they’re not there. I think it’s more likely that ET is using tight-beam lasers to communicate between star systems; it’s silly to expect them to dump powerful uncompressed signals toward us on the few frequencies we’re searching at the times we happen to look toward them. I think it’s very likely that there’s a lot of life out there; we’ve barely started searching.
In the next decade or so, we’re gonna get a lot better at seeing other solar systems. We’ll be getting new planet-finding telescopes built — there’s immediate-future stuff like Kepler, and there’s also the possibility of giant optical arrays in orbit or on the moon that can directly image earth-like planets around other stars. The data will start pouring in soon, and space will be exciting once more.
All that said, most applications of the Drake Equation are pretty shoddy. You can’t extrapolate from one damn data point no matter how much you want to. But this isn’t really Dr. Drake’s fault. He’s doing the best he can.
Edit: Regarding today’s comic: Dr. Drake’s first name is Frank, not Francis. He is an astrophysicist, not a 16th-century British Vice-Admiral. Thank you to the several readers who wrote in to correct me — I had always thought Francis Drake was just one long-lived and supremely-accomplished person.