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Cartographers of Human Purpose – The Story of Carl Sagan

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Perseverance and Ingenuity

On 18 February 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission achieved its primary objective. A rover, Perseverance, and its accompanying small helicopter, Ingenuity, landed on Mars. After over 6 months in cold space (Mars 2020 launched on 30 July 2020) humanity’s most advanced spacecraft landed on the red planet.

This is not the first spacecraft to reach the red planet. Most attempted missions to Mars failed. It was NASA’s Mariner 9 in 1971 and the two Vikings (I and 2) in 1976 that first sent back high-quality pictures and data. However, Mars 2020 is undoubtedly the most ambitious expedition to Mars.

There is an incredible amount of science Mars 2020 is expected to conduct. Was there life on Mars before the planet dried up into its present barren desert? Is there water on Mars, and could a human settlement be sustainable on its surface? The mission will bring back to earth a number of rock samples and test whether it is possible to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere made up mainly of carbon dioxide.

Science and Humanism

In the midst of this present triumph, we should not forget the role Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) played in laying the foundations of today’s success on Mars. Sagan was an adviser to NASA for many of its most important scientific expeditions. This included the moon landings, spacecraft to Mars (Mariner and Viking), and the outer planets (Voyager and Galileo).

Sagan was able to explain just how demanding these explorations were. In describing the challenges faces by engineers when the Voyager 2 space craft was soon to reach the planet Uranus, Sagan wrote that it was the “equivalent of throwing a pin through the eye of a needle 50 kilometers away, or firing your rifle in Washington and hitting the bull’s eye in Dallas.”

Sagan was an extremely intelligent young child and was always enquiring as to how the universe worked. He describes how excited he became on reading that the Sun was just another star, but close to the earth. He wrote, “The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me.” Sagan finished school early and then faced the problem that most universities would not admit such an under-age student. Fortunately, the University of Chicago accepted him as an undergraduate. He then studied and taught at some of the US’s most outstanding universities including Harvard and Cornell.

As he studied and learned more, Sagan broadened his outlook and learned as much about biology as about astronomy. This enabled him to take a comprehensive view of the world and provide us with the significant meaning behind scientific endeavors, including space exploration. The Voyager spacecraft Sagan helped develop explored not one planet but all four of the largest; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The two Voyager spacecraft are now, incredibly, the first man-made objects to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space. Long after our Sun dies and our earth ends, these spacecraft will still be carrying Sagan’s message of hope and peace into deep space.

Cartographer of human purpose

Sagan always sought to inspire and encourage. He wrote: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often, they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps. I do not think it irresponsible to portray even the direst futures; if we are to avoid them, we must understand that they are possible. But where are the alternatives? Where are the dreams that motivate and inspire? Where are the cartographers of human purpose? Where are the visions of hopeful futures, of technology as a tool for human betterment and not a gun on hair trigger pointed at our heads?”

In answer to his questions, Sagan said that “NASA offers such a vision.” For many of us, it was also Sagan who was a candle to all of humanity.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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