A couple of other blogs I follow reminded me that today, November 9, is Carl Sagan’s birthday. He was born in 1934 and passed on December 20, 1996. As I recall, in the ’70s and ’80s the portion of unmanned space missions that approached another body in our solar system was described as an encounter. In 1974, I had a brief encounter with the great astronomer and educator, Carl Sagan.
In the Spring of that year Sagan delivered a guest lecture at the college I attended. Although I was not a science major, space exploration was by far the subject I was most interested in. That period was just a few years after the Moon landings and the age of unmanned interplanetary exploration was kicking into high gear.
In 1972 the Pioneer 10 mission blasted off followed by Pioneer 11 in 1973. Pioneers 10 and 11 were headed for fly-by rendezvouses with Jupiter and Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. Those spacecraft were the first man-made objects destined to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space.
In 1974, preparations were well underway on the next missions to the gas giants of the outer solar system. Voyagers I and II were scheduled to launch in 1977. Voyager I was headed to Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager II was tasked with accomplishing the “Grand Tour,” close encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus on a single mission.
Carl Sagan and his wife at the time, Linda Salzman Sagan, were intimately involved with various aspects of all of those missions. When I learned Carl Sagan would be speaking, there was no way I was going to miss it.
Sagan’s 1974 lecture that I attended was devoted primarily to the Voyager missions. It was held in the college’s fanciest, recently remodeled lecture hall with a seating capacity of just less than 200. It was a standing-room-only event. Sagan was a very well-known figure although his popularity had yet to achieve the rock-star status it would hit with his many appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and especially after his hit TV show Cosmos, which debuted in 1980.
Here is a YouTube video of one of Sagan’s appearances on The Tonight Show. You can get a sense of Sagan’s charisma and unique manner of speaking that made him such a great communicator and inspirational figure. I just wonder how a kid who grew up in Brooklyn developed such an accent.
For the lecture, I had a seat near the back of the room and listened intently along with everyone else. As I recall, Sagan focused on the Voyager missions and his theories on the existence of and search for extraterrestrial life.
I Met Carl Sagan And Asked A Dumb Question
After the lecture I and a handful of others waited around and were able to speak with Sagan face to face. My question related to the cover of the Golden Record that was affixed to each Voyager spacecraft. The cover shows the location of Earth. (Earth’s location also was on Pioneers 10 and 11.)
I asked that since any civilization that found the Voyagers would be travelling in interstellar space and would be vastly superior technologically to Earth, was it wise to put Earth’s location on the records as there was the chance (even if a small one) that a civilization that finds a Voyager might come to Earth and do harm? Certainly that has been the historical experience on Earth when a civilization with superior technology contacts a civilization that is not nearly as technologically advanced.
My question could be taken in an offensive manner but I asked respectfully and was pretty sure there was a good answer that I hadn’t thought of. Sagan calmly responded in the same manner he displayed on the Tonight Show video. Basically, he said the Voyagers were revealing nothing because the Voyagers would never get farther from Earth than 10 light years (I think was the exact number he used), and radio and TV signals, which travel at light speed, have already gone much farther than that.
Sagan answered the question on the level at which I asked it, but he didn’t provide the real answer. For if alien civilizations can detect TV and radio broadcasts, then the Golden Record, which contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, serves no purpose. Alien civilizations would know everything about Earth from our broadcasts before they might come across any of our spacecraft and the pitifully small
+ amount of information contained on the Golden Record.
A lot of effort went into choosing the information to include on the Golden Record. Sagan chaired the NASA committee that selected the content. The process took more than a year. The record’s assorted contents include photographs of people and animals, places, diagrams, a variety of musical works including classical, rock, blues, folk music from many cultures and whale song, spoken greetings in 55 languages, a message from President Carter, and interestingly a recording of the brain waves of Ann Druyan, an Emmy award winning producer and director who was a member of the selection committee and later became Sagan’s third and final wife.
Was it all just a publicity stunt to garner interest in and funding for the space program? After all the saying is: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” If that were the case, I’d be fine with it even though payload on interplanetary probes is precious.
Sagan’s purpose was much more than generating publicity and funding I believe. Given the fact that other civilizations might be seeing and hearing our TV and radio broadcasts, Sagan may have wanted to put together a compendium of information that represents the finer things Earth is capable of rather than the inane stuff that fills our airwaves.