Celebrating Carl Sagan And 'Cosmos'

The television series Cosmos, which first aired 30 years ago this week, made a celebrity of science communicator Carl Sagan. In this archival 1994 Science Friday interview, Sagan discusses his book The Pale Blue Dot and shares his thoughts on manned space exploration.

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IRA FLATOW, host: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. Any update on sasquatch at all?

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(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: This month, we enter our 20th year of SCIENCE FRIDAY. So to celebrate, we're digging through the archives and bringing back the best and brightest of thousands of interviews you've heard over the years. And we're ticking off our anniversary here with the great science communicator, Carl Sagan. His television series, "Cosmos" started 30 years ago this week. So it's a double celebration. And here's an excerpt from our interview about the book, "The Pale Blue Dot," and the future of space exploration. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that almost 20 years ago, Sagan advised the course for exploration, that just this week, almost 20 year later, NASA finally adopted itself.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

FLATOW: "Pale Blue Dot," that's always the first question that every interviewer asked an author, why the title?

Mr. CARL SAGAN (Astronomer): Well, I was an experimenter on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. And after they swept by the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune systems, it was possible to do something I had wanted to do from the beginning, and that is to turn the cameras on one of these spacecraft back to photograph the planet from which it had come. And clearly, there would not be much scientific data from this, because we were so far away that the Earth was just a point - a pale blue dot.

But when we took the picture, there was something about it that seemed to me so poignant, vulnerable, tiny. And if we had photographed it from a much further distance, it would have been gone, lost against the backdrop of distant stars. And to me, it - I thought there - that's us. That's our world. That's all of us - everybody you know, everybody you love, everybody you ever heard of lived out their lives there, on a mote of dust in a sunbeam.

And it spoke to me about the need for us to care for one another, and also to preserve the pale blue dot, which is the only home we've ever known. And it underscored the tinyness, the comparative insignificance of our world and ourselves.

FLATOW: You know, back when men were walking on the moon, there was that famous photo of the Earth rise over the moon and the - I guess, you might call it the bright blue marble, compared to your pale blue dot. That sort of led to movements like the environmental movement when people could see us as a united planet without the political boundaries.

Mr. SAGAN: Exactly.

FLATOW: Can we use the "Pale Blue Dot" as an analogy to that or something that's even further looking?

Mr. SAGAN: That's it. It's a set of steps outward. And that Apollo 17 picture, I think, raised many people to an environmental consciousness. And the "Pale Blue Dot," at least for me, is - represents the last moment in spacecraft leaving the Earth in which you can see the Earth at all. And the idea that we are at the center of the universe, much less the reason that there is a universe, is strongly, powerfully counter-indicated by the smallness of our world.

FLATOW: Whatever happened to the man in space program? Well, I don't have to tell you how popular it was. It was the talked of the '60s. We all grew up with it. There was excitement. There was fervor. There was the exploration. Everybody was behind it. Countless amount of money was going into it. Now, it just lies fallow and (unintelligible).

Mr. SAGAN: You're absolutely right. I think the first thing to say is, that was a historic - a mythic achievement. And 1,000 years from now, when nobody will have any idea what GATT(ph) is or what the - who the Speaker of the House was in the late '90s of the 20th century. People will remember Apollo because that was the time that humans first set foot on another world.

But Apollo was not about science. It was not about exploration. Apollo was about the nuclear arms race. It was about intimidating other nations. It was about - beat the Russians. And when we did beat the Russians, then the program was ended, and the clearest indication of that is the fact that the last astronaut to step on the moon was the first scientist. As soon as the scientist got there, the program was over. People said, why are we wasting our money on science?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAGAN: Now, lately - I mean, in the '70 and '80s and '90s, NASA has been very - for the man part - or the human program - I hate to use the word man because it's - there are women astronauts. In the human program, we're shuttle-oriented. What shuttle typically does is put five or six or seven people in a tin can 200 miles up in the air and they launch a communication satellite or something that could just as well have been launched by an unmanned booster. And then the newts are doing fine, or the tomato plants didn't grow. Or now, with the next one, they're going to see how soft drinks taste in low Earth orbit, for heaven's sake. And then come back down again and they say, oh, we've had another exploration. That's not exploration. That's like driving a bus over the same highway 200 miles...

FLATOW: That's Cola Wars (unintelligible)...

Mr. SAGAN: The Cola Wars. Whereas if NASA had gone on to send humans to near-earth asteroids or to land on Mars, the enthusiasm would have been maintained at a very high level. Now I don't say that it's NASA's fault. NASA cannot make that decision on its own. It has to be made at a much higher level. But that decision was not made. NASA was left to its own devices, and that's why we have a falling off of interest in the space program for excellent reasons. People aren't stupid.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAGAN: They understand that we're not going anywhere.

FLATOW: The late Carl Sagan from a 1994 interview on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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