One of history’s most well-known and respected astrophysicists, Carl Sagan worked closely with NASA for over 40 years and helped introduce space to the masses.
Carl Sagan is remembered today not just for his outstanding achievements in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, but also for his skill and enthusiasm for promoting science and interest in space, writing notable titles such as Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot, and presenting numerous television shows throughout the Eighties.
His work in astrophysics led him into many notable roles, including briefing Apollo astronauts before their flights to the moon, the designing of numerous robotic spacecraft – including the famous Viking Mars lander – and advising NASA on probable compositional and atmospheric conditions of distant planets and moons. Indeed, his work on Venus – where he accurately theorized its surface and atmospheric characteristics – made NASA’s first visit to the planet possible, with Sagan working closely on the Mariner missions.
It was this ability to extend his view into deep space that made him so respected in the field of astrophysics, working almost continuously with NASA for over 40 years of his life. Being able to accurately predict the qualities of distant planets and moons was invaluable, allowing NASA and other space institutions to better prepare for the realities of visiting them. Aside from his work on Venus, this was best demonstrated by his analysis of Saturn’s moons as well as his decoding of Mars’s seasonal changes, in which he concluded that the planet’s colour variations were not down to vegetation variation but in fact caused by massive windstorms.
Lecturing at Harvard and Cornell, working with NASA and advising on some of Earth’s greatest-ever space missions however was just half of Sagan’s story. Due to his outstanding knowledge of space and astrophysics, as well as his charismatic approach to both, he soon became a well-known figure on television, writing and presenting a number of TV shows that both helped inform and entertain the general public. Cosmos, a 13-part series in the Eighties -which today remains the most widely watched PBS series in history – saw Sagan cover a wide range of topics and was hailed for its special effects. Today, it is seen as the precursor to modern popular space television programmes such as Brian Cox’s Wonders Of The Universe, covering everything from planets, asteroids and comets through to nebulas and the Big Bang.
Sagan’s foray into the public sphere continued with the publication of a number of books about space, including a tie-in Cosmos title and a much-celebrated sequel, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space. Sagan’s prolific writing ability also saw him pen an introduction to Stephen Hawking’s Brief History Of Time, one of the most important books on astrophysics ever to be published.
How did Carl Sagan died
Towards the end of his life Sagan continued to help shed light on the uncharted depths of the cosmos and spoke frequently about it both on television and in numerous articles. Unfortunately, however, Sagan was diagnosed with myelodysplasia in the late-Eighties and, after many years struggling with the disease, he died from pneumonia at the age of 62 in Seattle, WA, on 20 December 1996. Following his death, numerous awards were created in his honour and NASA, who he had worked so closely with, dedicated a new institution in his name – the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. Upon the centre opening in 2006, a spokesperson for NASA said:
“Carl was an incredible visionary, and now his legacy can be preserved and advanced by a 21st-century research and education laboratory committed to enhancing our understanding of life in the universe and furthering the cause of space exploration for all time.”
Facts about Carl Sagan
Fair – When he was five his parents took him to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He later recounted that the experience became a turning point in his life, as he was blown away by the futuristic exhibits.
Billions – Sagan became associated with the catchphrase ‘billions and billions’, but he never said it. He used ‘billions upon billions’ once in his book Cosmos.
Asimov – Isaac Asimov, the Russian-American biochemistry expert considered the father of hard science fiction, famously described Sagan as only one of two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own.
Agnostic – While Sagan was not religious, he did not describe himself as an atheist, stating: “An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”
Sagan’s most important thinking explained
Sagan’s scientific achievements were many, however his thinking on the surfaces and atmospheres of distant planets and moons became one of his most notable. Sagan was the first person to accurately predict that Venus had an incredibly hot and dry surface, a conclusion reached by investigating radio emissions emitted from the planet. Further, Sagan also predicted that, due to its location, orbit and makeup, Saturn’s moon Titan might possess oceans of liquid compounds, while Europa – another Saturn moon – could have a subsurface ocean of water. The former prediction was later confirmed by the Galileo spacecraft.