Carl Sagan: Visionary

Originally written as a memorial speech delivered by Buzz Aldrin, this was subsequently published in the Planetary Society’s Planetary Report, May/June 1997.

SaganI can’t think of Carl without seeing that windblown figure strolling on the beach, telling us, over the roar of the breakers, in his emphatic rhythms and prophetic style, that we stand on the shore of the cosmic ocean, riding our wisp of blue and white like mites on a floating leaf, in the whorls and eddies of a great galactic reef.  It was in that first episode of Cosmos, seen by 400 million people in 60 countries, that he released to the sea breeze the dandelion seed that became his cathedral-like “ship of the imagination,” drifting majestically among stellar fires and mysterious worlds. 

That cathedral of the imagination was Carl Sagan’s signature.  More than anyone of his century, he reignited the sense of wonder in a world increasingly content to simply exist.  Wonder was the core motif in the complex fugue of Carl’s life: the six-year-old at the World Exposition, awestruck by the utopian sights; the boy standing with outstretched arms in an open field, imploring the magic force that had carried John Carter to that blood-red beacon burning low in the night sky; and the proud ship Voyager, with its pictures of man and its heartfelt hellos from the children of Earth.  Who but Carl would cast humanity’s bottle into the cosmic ocean? 

But it was also Carl’s rare gift to walk that razor’s edge between romance and reality.  He was the dreamer and the doer, the theorist and the activist, combining his lofty speculations with cold, hard logic, balancing his soaring wonder with an unrelenting skepticism.  It’s been said of him that “few scientists have made such extraordinary claims,” but that “fewer still have backed them up with such extraordinary evidence.”

The dreamer brought to a shrinking world measureless oceans of space; the doer was arrested at a nuclear protest.  A student, suggesting that Sagan had demystified all the beliefs that make us feel worthwhile, asked him what was left.  Without pause, Carl said, “Do something worthwhile, and then you can feel worthwhile.”  But the common thread, running through his many-faceted career, was his confrontation with what he called our “failure of nerve.”  The self-indulgent state that has taken this nation from the world’s largest producer and creditor to the world’s largest consumer and debtor now cycles between pseudoscientific solipsism and existential despair, while the lone ego becomes a cosmos unto itself.

Into this new medievalism came Carl Sagan, a latter-day Bruno announcing an “infinity of worlds,” a Copernicus holding that ego is not the center, a Galileo revealing that the heavens are more than a crystaline zodiac, that they are vast beyond imagination.

While the degenerate media offer epiphanies in the form of aliens come to eviscerate cows and rape rural housewives, the epiphany for Carl lay not in a cosmos that comes across light years to doodle in our wheat fields, but one to which we must make the pilgrimage, across an infinite regression of Archimedian points, sailing outward into ourselves.  The quest, for Carl, was not inward and backward, but forward and outward.

Symbolic of both medievalism and solipsism—an Earth turning inward upon itself—is a budget that encourages the exploitation rather than the exploration of space.  “Space exploration,” Carl insisted, is not endless circles in low orbit, tending weightless tomatoes, it is “going to other worlds.”  The continued exploration of the solar system, he argued is “a challenge that can bind together nations, inspire youth, advance science, and ultimately end our confinement to one vulnerable world.”

Joseph Campbell has observed that in countless myths from all parts of the world, the quest for fire occurred not because anyone knew what the practical uses of fire would be, but because it was fascinating.  It is fitting that those same myths credit the capture of fire with setting man apart from the beasts, for it was the earliest sign of that willingness to pursue fascination at great risk that has been the signature of our species.  Man requires these fascinations, said the poet Robinson Jeffers, as “visions that fool him out of his limits.”  Carl’s grand vision was of voyages on a stellar ocean teeming with life.  He saw in spaceflight, as in all science, the spiritual quest—the sense of hope that is the heart of the human soul. 

A teacher of the world, a risk-taker who often stood alone against the scientific establishment, who saw that there can be no meaningful success without the opportunity to fail, Carl Sagan passes into the lexicon with the likes of Verne, Wells, Heinlein, and Bonestell, Goddard, Oberth, and Von Braun—men who “fooled us out of our limits,” leaving us finally aware that we live in the stars. 

This was the promise of Carl Sagan’s vision, that people from Earth would one day flow into the ancient river valleys of Mars, down the gorges three miles deep, out over desolate, wind-torn plains, out to the ice seas of Europa, the yellow skies of Titan, and the great wall of Miranda, out into the ocean of light, to those worlds within worlds where the star-children wait.

He was, as he said of science itself, “a candle in the dark.”


  1. Terrific article, which encouraged me to immediately purchase Mr. Wachhorst’s new book on Space Flight. Keep writing Mr. W.
    Gary Phillips

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