Carl Edward Sagan was an American astronomer, astrochemist, author, and highly successful popularizer of astronomy, astrophysics and other natural sciences. He pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Russian Jewish family. His father, Sam Sagan, was a Russian immigrant garment worker; his mother, Rachel Molly Gruber, a housewife. Carl was named in honor of Rachel’s biological mother, Chaiya Clara, “the mother she never knew”, in Sagan’s words. Sagan graduated from Rahway High School in Rahway, New Jersey in 1951. He attended the University of Chicago, where he participated in the Ryerson Astronomical Society, received a B.A. with general and special honors (1954), a B.S. (1955) and a M.S. (1956) in physics, before earning a Ph.D. degree (1960) in astronomy and astrophysics.
Sagan was a scientist connected with the American space program since its inception. From the 1950s onward, he worked as an adviser to NASA. One of his many duties during his tenure at the space agency included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. Sagan contributed to many of the robotic spacecraft missions that explored the solar system during his lifetime, arranging experiments on many of the expeditions. He conceived the idea of adding an unalterable and universal message on spacecraft destined to leave the solar system that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find it. Sagan assembled the first physical message that was sent into space: a gold-anodized plaque, attached to the space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972. Pioneer 11, also carrying another copy of the plaque, was launched the following year. He continued to refine his designs throughout his lifetime; the most elaborate message he helped to develop and assemble was the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out with the Voyager space probes in 1977. Sagan often challenged the decisions to fund the Space Shuttle and Space Station at the expense of further robotic missions.
He is world-famous for writing popular science books and for co-writing and presenting the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which has been seen by more than 500 million people in over 60 countries. A book to accompany the program was also published. He also wrote the novel Contact, the basis for the 1997 film of the same name. One of the last books he wrote was Pale Blue Dot. During his lifetime, Sagan published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, co-author, or editor of more than 20 books. In his works, he frequently advocated skeptical inquiry, secular humanism, and the scientific method.
Sagan erroneously predicted in January 1991 that so much smoke from the Kuwaiti oil fires “might get so high as to disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia…” He acknowledged the error in The Demon-Haunted World: “as events transpired, it was pitch black at noon and temperatures dropped 4–6 °C over the Persian Gulf, but not much smoke reached stratospheric altitudes and Asia was spared.”
After a long and difficult fight with myelodysplasia, which included three bone marrow transplants, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington on December 20, 1996. Surviving him were his wife and five children.
On November 9, 2001, on what would have been Sagan’s 67th birthday, the NASA Ames Research Center dedicated the site for the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Cosmos. “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”, said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. Ann Druyan was at the Center as it opened its doors on October 22, 2006.
This year, 2009, the 75th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth, the First “Carl Sagan Day” was celebrated on November 7.
Among the numerous awards he won during his lifetime are:
# Annual Award for Television Excellence – 1981 – Ohio State University – PBS series Cosmos
# Apollo Achievement Award – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
# NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal – National Aeronautics and Space Administration (twice)
# Emmy – Outstanding Individual Achievement – 1981 – PBS series Cosmos
# Emmy – Outstanding Informational Series – 1981 – PBS series Cosmos
# Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
# Helen Caldicott Leadership Award – Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament
# Hugo Award – 1981 – Cosmos
# Humanist of the Year – 1981 – Awarded by the American Humanist Association
# In Praise of Reason Award – 1987 – Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
# Isaac Asimov Award – 1994 – Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
# John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award – American Astronautical Society
# John W. Campbell Memorial Award – 1974 – Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective
# Joseph Priestley Award – “For distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind”
# Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific – 1974
# Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal – Awarded by the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation
# Locus Award 1986 – Contact
# Lowell Thomas Award – Explorers Club – 75th Anniversary
# Masursky Award – American Astronomical Society
# Miller Research Fellowship – Miller Institute (1960–1962); among others