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Carl Sagan, A “Cosmos” Master

Author and Scientist Carl Sagan poses in front of the solar system.
Author and Scientist Carl Sagan poses in front of the solar system. Credit: NASA Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

The mirrored serving tray made the schmear-covered bread pieces appear fancier than they actually were. My unofficial motto as the newly appointed NASA Administrator was “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” But this hors d'oeuvre platter only hit two of the three. Since my entire entertainment budget for the year was $12,000, I couldn’t justify spending a lot of money for one guest. Even if that guest was renowned scientist and media personality Carl Sagan.

Given how our first interaction had gone (and his recent comments about my taking over the NASA role), I felt that our meeting might be a bit contentious. I turned out to be correct about that, but eventually Carl and I were able to move past our differences to become more than just good colleagues – we became friends.

Carl Sagan was born in New York City in 1934 and was fascinated with science from a young age. He had a specific interest in the possibility of intelligent life existing on other planets and won a high school essay contest where he speculated that if humans ever did make contact with species on other planets, it could end in disaster. Despite this, his early career focused on research in the controversial field of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and his work brought extensive innovation to that area.

In 1968, he became the director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Later, he helped choose the Mars landing sites for the Viking probes, and he codesigned the messages that were attached to the Pioneer and Voyager probes that were launched out of the solar system. That accomplishment held a special significance because as a child he had witnessed the burial of a time capsule at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and became thrilled with the idea of leaving something behind for those in the future to learn about inhabitants from the past.

Carl’s fascination with space led him to take on many roles throughout his life: astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, professor, and science communicator. It was this last role that allowed him to gain worldwide acclaim. He had a special ability to communicate the beauty of science to a broad population.

In 1980 he created “Cosmos”, a limited TV series that explored the origin of life and other scientific concepts. It was highly regarded for its special effects and music and went on to win two Emmys and a Peabody Award. One of the co-creators was Ann Druyan, who Carl would marry the next year.

I was a fan of “Cosmos” and Carl’s other works, so when I saw that he was giving a lecture in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I knew I had to attend.

He was a very thin, tall (about 6’ 4”), nice-looking man, and of course very intelligent – a Bohemian in a turtleneck. This was during the height of the Cold War, and his speech covered his concerns of a nuclear holocaust and mutually assured destruction. And there I sat in the audience, an executive at TRW (which later became Northrop Grumman) working on systems designed to warn Americans of incoming Russian ballistic missiles… as well as developing missiles that were in return aimed back at Russia.

After his speech, I introduced myself and politely told him what I did for a living. He noticeably stiffened up, and though I used humor to try to get him to view me not as an adversary but rather as just another human, it was safe to say that had that been our only encounter, he would not have remembered me fondly.

A Scientific Debate Turned Lifelong Friendship

I wouldn’t meet Carl Sagan again for almost ten years, shortly after I was sworn in as the new NASA Administrator at the beginning of April 1992. NASA had had several public failures in the years preceding my appointment. In route to Jupiter, the Galileo spacecraft’s High Gain Antenna failed to fully open, causing only 70% of the $3 billion mission’s objectives to be fulfilled. The $5 billion Hubble telescope was launched only for it to be discovered that it couldn’t see anything until a “contact lens” was added.

On top of this, President Bush Sr. and Congress made it clear that NASA’s budget was going to have to go flat for the next decade, meaning we would have to absorb any inflation and learn to do more with less. Thus my motto was born: “ Faster. Better, Cheaper.”

Carl Sagan wasn’t privy to this information, so he didn’t understand (and wasn’t happy with) my public comments about future NASA projects, particularly when I said that the budget for Cassini (designed to land a probe on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons) needed to “go on a diet.” In his mind, I was just another political appointee who didn’t understand science.

So I invited Carl to visit my office so we could each share our perspectives, and I had the hors d'oeuvre platter prepared in an attempt to smooth things over. It didn’t help much. Carl was very stiff when he entered, and even after sitting he looked uncomfortable, as if he were on hot coals. Although we found several points we agreed on, he also accused me of destroying science. I suggested that instead of arguing here, we should have a public debate in front of a scientific audience, which he accepted.

The debate took place on December 4th, 1992 at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, a fitting location given that Caltech manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It was organized by the Planetary Society, which Carl was a cofounder of. We discussed the future of America’s space program before opening it up to questions from the audience.

I explained that the current method of investing huge budgets into projects that sometimes took decades to finish risked tanking the space program if one failed. But if we sped up projects and kept the costs smaller, we wouldn’t have to be afraid to take risks because we could afford a few failures. Cutting the time between design and launch would also help us avoid relying on outdated technology.

Carl showcased his affable personality early on by joking that his debates with previous NASA Administrators had only been in his head while taking a shower, so he appreciated this opportunity. He understood Congress’s reluctance to invest in the space program since in most cases it didn’t produce anything of substance, but at the same time he felt that the amazing things NASA was capable of warranted financial support. His argument was that a huge budget on projects could be worth it depending on what scientific data was gathered, and he worried that cheaper, faster projects would provide less extensive results.

I countered that we needed to have more exploratory projects in order to create enough action for the American people to remain interested and support our efforts. After all, the space program relies on tax dollars, so it belongs to them too, not just to those who actually work on it. But the requirements being put into place for data gathering missions were coming only from NASA researchers and not the tens of thousands of people who were going to use the data.

Carl agreed that it made sense for missions near Earth to be smaller and quicker for multiple reasons, one of which was that it would allow graduate students to work on multiple missions to their completion before they grew old and gray. But he felt that the further into space a craft was going, the larger it needed to be or else it wouldn’t be capable of anything that existing craft hadn’t already accomplished.

He also had plenty to say in response to my mentioning a young man who had attended a NASA town hall and asked when humans would get to Mars. He said the man and others who shared his opinion might change their minds if they were told what could be accomplished in their community with just a fraction of what a human mission to Mars would cost. He also argued that they were a skewed demographic because their attending a town hall likely meant they already supported NASA and didn’t necessarily represent the general public’s opinion.

There were important questions that exploration of Mars could answer. Was there some form of life there? Could it one day be habitable by humans? But Carl felt these questions could be better answered through robotic exploration using deep technology.

While there were steps leading to eventual Mars exploration by humans that I felt could be done now, such as using the space station to study the long-term effects of space flight on the human body, overall it would be a long-term mission. And Carl understood why a President might be reluctant to support something that wouldn’t culminate until two or three presidents down the line, when someone from another political party could potentially be in office and reap the benefits of a public event.

One thing we agreed on was that the media did a poor job sharing what NASA was doing with the American people because it thought they would be unable to understand the scientific concepts. But Carl put equal blame on NASA, arguing that we should push back on this more and find better ways to communicate, such as using computer animations to help people visualize research and technology goals and achievements. Whereas I felt that this could be accomplished by working with engineers and scientists to “write in plain English,” which I had done by having science writers work with staff to better share information.

We also agreed that different nations collaborating on difficult projects could help build relationships, especially for those countries that were having disagreements. I had already seen this play out in my own life because after spending twenty-five years working to take down the Soviet Union, President Bush asked me to meet with Boris Yeltsin in hopes that we could eventually take a US space shuttle to the MIR space station. Some things truly are bigger than borders.

After our debate (and especially after the Cassini project was successful even on its lowered budget), Carl Sagan and I became friends, exchanging notes and phone calls along with the occasional visit. Though our disagreements were nowhere near the level of the US and the Soviet Union, our relationship was still a testimony to the fact that if you open your mind and heart you can collaborate with someone who holds opposing views. You have to drop your defenses so that you can be receptive to hearing difficult ideas that are contrary to your own, but you both benefit from it.

Carl Sagan’s Dedication to Achieve Beyond.

The last time Carl Sagan visited my office was about two weeks before he passed away. I knew that he was suffering from myelodysplasia (a cancerous blood disease), but because he was athletic and had access to the best doctors, I had assumed he would make a full recovery. But when my assistant came into my office to let me know he had arrived, I could tell by the look on her face that my assumptions had been incorrect.

Carl walked in weighing maybe ninety pounds. Ostensibly he was coming to say goodbye, but he wasn’t giving up his fight just yet. Over the next hour and a half we had a wonderful conversation, and what has always stuck with me is that despite being mere weeks away from death, he wanted to talk about possibilities for the future – and make sure that I was going to follow through on my promises.

We continued the conversation at the Four Seasons where our wives joined us for dinner. Even though Carl couldn’t eat anything, he and his wife shared their ideas for a sequel to “Cosmos.” His optimism made it hard for me to feel sad, and to this day I strive to think positively and share my passions as enthusiastically as he did.

I hope that others will be inspired to do the same.

If you are feeling as nostalgic as I am today, head over to my youtube channel and watch a few of my favorite Cosmos episodes that showcase the very best of Mr. Carl Sagan, who can only be defined as a scientific legend.

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