Science: The Cosmic Explainer

  • Share
  • Read Later

(8 of 9)

Back in 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft had just become the first ship from earth to orbit another planet. The target was Sagan's old favorite, Mars. In less than a year of reconnaissance, the robot accumulated more information about the Red Planet than had been gathered in three centuries of earlier observation from earth. Yet to Sagan's chagrin, the feat was virtually ignored by American television. Four years later, the even more spectacular Viking landings on Mars were again all but ignored. Sagan decided something had to be done. Joining up with an equally dismayed colleague at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, B. Gentry Lee, Sagan sought sponsors for a TV film on space exploration. What they ended up with was an agreement with KCET, the Los Angeles PBS station, for an even bigger project: a full science series somewhat like Jacob Bronowski's acclaimed The Ascent of Man, with Sagan as guide and principal author. Ascent's British producer, Adrian Malone, was even recruited to ride herd on the enterprise.

That was no easy job. Inevitably, there were disagreements, some over scientific accuracy, others involving personality. Sagan, a novice at TV production, admits that he ruffled feelings among the TV staff with his constant questioning. There were logistical problems. A severe snowstorm hit Death Valley just before the Cosmos team was scheduled to re-enact a Viking landing. A few miles away, the U.S. Air Force was conducting bomb runs. In addition, word came that Sagan's father had developed lung cancer. Over the ten months of illness that led up to his father's death, Carl frequently had to be away from the filming for days at a time.

There were other changes in Sagan's life during this period. He separated from his wife Linda, leaving her and their son Nicholas, 10, behind in Ithaca. He moved to Los Angeles with a New York novelist named Ann Druyan, 31, who had been collaborating with him on a record of terrestrial photographs and sounds (Murmurs of Earth) for placement aboard the Voyager spacecraft, as well as helping him with the Cosmos script. After Sagan's divorce, they hope to marry.

Having discovered the excitement of show business, Sagan is eager to continue in it. Says he: "Television is one of the greatest teaching tools ever invented, particularly for teaching science." One project on tap is a feature film with a scenario by Sagan (but no acting role for him), about an encounter with extraterrestrial life. The tentative title: Contact. It may be a while, however, before that adventure goes before the cameras. After a two-year absence, Sagan is due to resume teaching and research at Cornell in January. He must also straighten out his divorce proceeding, which now threatens to become a court battle over the division of property (Sagan has retained flamboyant "palimony" Lawyer Marvin Mitchelson). Finally, he professes a desire to go back to research, at least part time, something that he has found virtually impossible to pursue with his multiplying interests.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9