Heroes of Space: Carl Sagan

From the largest stars to the smallest mote of dust, Carl Sagan helped popularise space like never before

Sagan helped popularise space like never before. Image Credit: NASA

Sagan helped popularise space like never before. Image Credit: NASA

In an age when space exploration and science became more mainstream than ever, Carl Sagan was influential in making complex topics accessible to the masses. In fact, Sagan is widely remembered as one of the most famous astrophysicists of all time.

Sagan was born 9 November 1934 in Brooklyn, New York, USA. It was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair where he first encountered science and astronomy. His imagination was captured by a time capsule containing memories of the Thirties that was buried for future generations to uncover, and this inspired him to create the Pioneer plaque and Voyager Golden Records, memories of Earth that would be sent far into the cosmos aboard their respective spacecraft.

His interest in space led him to the University of Chicago, where he achieved a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. Throughout the Fifties he worked as an adviser to NASA, which included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon and working on experiments for, among other probes, the Galileo and Voyager spacecraft.

Some of his major scientific achievements occurred in the Sixties, starting with his conclusion that Venus was a scorching world with a thick atmosphere, rather than a moderate Earth-like paradise. This theory was proved correct by Mariner 2 in 1962. He was also one of the first scientists to suggest that Saturn’s moon Titan might have liquids on its surface, and he helped study shifts in surface dust on Mars. Some of his most famous research concerned extraterrestrial life, which he was sure existed.

Sagan next to a mock-up of the Mars Viking Lander. Image Credit: NASA

Sagan next to a mock-up of the Mars Viking Lander. Image Credit: NASA

For all his scientific research, however, it was through his television shows that he rose to fame. His most famous show was arguably the popular 13-part series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted and co-written by Sagan, which covered topics including the origins of life on Earth and our place in the universe. Having been broadcast in over 60 countries and seen by more than half a billion people, it remains one of the most popular space-related television shows to date.

As well as his television appearances he wrote a number of books including Pale Blue Dot:
A Vision Of The Human Future In Space, which was inspired by the image of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at Sagan’s behest that showed the Earth as a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Despite his widespread fame he stayed devoted to teaching, and remained as a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University until his death on 20 December 1996. Among his notable posthumous recognitions, the landing site for NASA’s Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station in July 1997, while ‘Sagan’s number’ is a humorous tribute to his catchphrase “billions and billions” which denotes the huge number of stars in the universe. Forever remembered for making space accessible to everyone, it feels fitting to end on one of his awe-inspiring statements: “The total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”

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