In the 1960s, Drake spearheaded the conversion of the Arecibo Observatory to a radio astronomical facility, later updated in 1974 and 1996. As a researcher, Drake was involved in the early work on pulsars. In this period, Drake was a professor at Cornell University and Director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) – the formal name for the Arecibo facility. In 1974 he wrote the Arecibo message.
Drake co-designed the Pioneer plaque with Carl Sagan in 1972, the first physical message sent into space. The plaque was designed to be understandable by extraterrestrials should they encounter it. He later supervised the creation of the Voyager Golden Record. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974.
Drake is a member of the National Academy of Sciences where he chaired the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council (1989–92). He also served as President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University (1964–84) and served as the Director of the Arecibo Observatory. He is currently involved in "The Carl Sagan Center for the Study of life in the Universe" at the SETI Institute.
He is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics  at the University of California at Santa Cruz where he also served as Dean of Natural Sciences (1984–88). He serves on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute.